INTO AFRICA

Last year I was trekking amidst the snow-covered glaciers below Mt. Everest in Nepal - this year I was viewing wild game in the hot, dry, dusty savannah of central Botswana. Two greater extremes in climate and countries are hard to imagine. Yet is there a difference? Well, not really. This is adventure travel and it's the only way to visit these relatively inaccessible places.

After changing aircraft in Harare I arrived at Victoria Falls where I met the other eight members of the group. We only had a few minutes to introduce ourselves before we jumped on board the 4WD "forward control" safari vehicle. With Giles, our illustrious guide at the wheel, we spent the next two hours driving on a well sealed road to the Botswana border. Behind us, high in the sky like smoke from a bush fire, rose the mist from the mighty Victoria Falls. The border formalities were over in less than an hour. Having experienced many time consuming Asian border crossings, as an overland driver on the Kathmandu to London run, I was amazed at the speed of this crossing.

Botswana is a country the size of France yet it only has a population of 1.3 million, most of whom live in the eastern side bordering Zimbabwe and South Africa. The capital is Gaborone and the only other town of any note is Francistown. To the south is the Kalahari desert and to the north is open savannah. Most of the country is only accessible by light plane or 4WD. As one of Africa's richest nations it produces and exports diamonds and some of the finest beef in the world.

Our first night's camp was on the banks of the Chobe River which separates Botswana and the Caprivi Strip of Africa's newest nation, Namibia. As the sun descended to the horizon it was time to board the "sunset cruise". I had only ever seen elephants in the zoo and now here I was, with gin and tonic in hand, just a few meters from 300 elephants having their evening drink. Further along we watched giraffes bending awkwardly for their drink while the crocodiles kept a hungry eye on the proceedings.

By the time we arrived back into camp it was dark and we all pitched in to help Giles prepare dinner which was cooked over an open wood fire. Unlike Nepal there is an abundance of firewood available in this part of Africa, however it is disappearing at an ever increasing rate. The meals Giles cooked during the expedition were some of the best I have experienced in the outdoors.

The one memory of this trip I will always treasure is drinking port around the camp fire while listening to the noises of the African bush. Giles identified the calls of many wild animals and told us bedtime stories of past animal encounters. He warned us not to wander far from the tents at any time, day or night.

Sometimes at night animals might stalk through the camp so having a 'leak' became rather exciting! Sometimes I would lie awake wondering what to do with a full bladder. I was a little worried one morning when Giles pointed out some fresh paw marks in the sand and nonchalantly told us that there had been lion through the camp that night.

A typical day began early with a game drive just before dawn, lasting two hours or so, followed by a cooked breakfast back in camp. Packing the vehicle we would then drive for a few hours stopping to view or photograph animals whenever we saw them. Following lunch we would drive the remaining distance to the next camp. After putting up the tents we would set off just before dusk to search out the waterholes where the animals would be drinking.

For the next few days we explored the route south toward Maun, a dusty outback town on the edge of the Okavango Delta. En route we enjoyed morning or afternoon tea at some of the luxury game lodges and tented camps. Here clients fly in by private aircraft and are given five star treatment for the cost of about $300 per person per night. Imagine having a foam bath, drinking champagne and watching elephants and giraffes having a drink at the nearby water-hole, while your three course dinner is being prepared by some of the best chefs in the world.

 On one occasion we spent two fascinating hours watching a pride of lions stalking two impala. We were in the middle and both the hunters and the hunted seemed oblivious to us. Throughout this time the impala were aware of the predators. Their ears were pricked, listening intently while the lions circled them silently as only cats can do. After what seemed like an eternity we were all pleased to see the impala take off. Mind you we did feel a little sorry for the lions as we had interrupted a possible meal. However, I'm sure they didn't stay hungry for long.

Eventually we arrived at Maun which has only two things going for it, the flight into the Delta and the Duck Inn. The latter being a pleasant watering hole where it is possible to indulge in a cheeseburger and chips washed down with the local Castle beer. It also boasts an international airport with scheduled flights from the major cities of Southern Africa.

The Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta, is a system of rivers which start in Angola and flow south toward the Kalahari desert. There it stops, spreads out and becomes 15,000 square kms of crystal clear waterways. Within this swamp lie many game camps, each with their own little bush airstrip.

Our destination was Miller's Camp which is reached, as are all the camps in the Delta, by little four seater Cessnas. Our plane was piloted by a New Zealander who casually took off not knowing most of his instruments were not working. Fortunately the compass was working and he knew roughly the direction of the airstrip. Twenty anxious minutes later we landed in a cloud of dust and were greeted by the camp crew.

From the airstrip we boarded a motorised flat-bottomed boat for the half hour trip to the camp. After ditching our gear we headed off to explore the waterways and to see the sunset. Two days were spent here swimming, walking, viewing the abundant birdlife and exploring in Mykoros, local dug-out canoes propelled by a long pole. The swimming holes were not holes but sand banks where the water is clear and it is possible to keep an eye out for crocodile!

By some untoward stroke of luck we flew back to Maun in the same aircraft as we had flown in with. Fortunately Maun 'international' airport is much easier to see than the dusty bush airstrips. After a few refreshing beers at the Duck Inn we boarded our Air Botswana flight for the short hop back to Victoria Falls.

Our time in Victoria Falls was spent kayaking and rafting on the mighty Zambezi river. A day was spent walking in the Zambezi River National Park. Here bush walking takes on a new meaning. Do not walk by yourself! Walk with a guide. The guides know the area well and all carry guns, just in case! Walking in single file behind the guide means the person bringing up the rear doesn't know what is behind them. A very spooky feeling.

When one is in Victoria Falls one must partake in the legendary "Flight of the Angels". If Livingston had the chance I'm sure he would have. Let there be no mistake, this flight is a must but make sure your stomach can cope with the sudden drops, climbs and turns. Don't be put off by the previous group who stagger from the plane carrying their "sick bags".

Africa consists of over 50 countries in total and we saw just two. If the rest are as interesting and exciting as Zimbabwe and Botswana then there is a lot of adventuring ahead!

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