BOTSWANA-ZIMBABWE CAMPING SAFARI PROVES TO BE WILD EXPERIENCE

by Eric Leiberman

Our correspondent, Eric Leiberman, just completed a 10-day camping safari trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe, as a prelude to spending two months in South Africa.

The game-viewing trip, “Backroads of Botswana” organized by Gecko’s Adventures of Australia and sold in the U.S. by Adventure Center, begins in Pretoria and goes to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Maun, Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park, and ends at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Among the highlights: Canoe the Okavango Delta; Khama Rhino Sanctuary; visiting Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Nxai Pan salt flats, The Chobe riverside, Chobe National Park, Botswana and Victoria Falls.

A guide eases the mokoro over flat water at sunset in the Okavango Delta © 2010 Eric Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Eric filed his report by Skype. Here’s what he had to say:

In the Okavango Delta, which is a floodplain, the only way you can get around is by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe made out of the Mokoro tree.

We traveled in the Delta for 2 1/2 days with local Botswana people, who we got to know.

When we were camping in the Delta, that is wilderness camping. The animals are where you are camping. You are going to the bathroom in a hole. Lions, buffaloes

Camping with lions?

It got more serious than that in Chobe…

In the Delta, we would do these nature walks, where would walk in single file line no more than 7, and no one wearing bright colors… They warned us what to do if we see animals:

Lion: look directly in his face and don’t move
Elephant: run down wind so he can’t smell you and hide under a log
Buffalo: run zig zag and climb up a tree
Leopard in tree: look down on the ground, because…

There are no paths. You are walking through tall grass. You look right, left. You have no idea if there is a lion right next to you . We walked for 3-4 hours.

We didn’t see lions – and I was contented with that. The area where you would you see lions is the Okavango Delta, part of Botswana which is arguably one of the best destinations to see actual wildlife. At the gameparks that people constantly think of for safari, the animals are wild, but are so accustomed to seeing people and vehicles, they aren’t acting the way they would.

The reason there we didn’t get to see as many animals as usual is that they had the biggest flood in recorded history (rainy season just ended) – water levels were very high. That’s why we didn’t get to see many animals, because the animals don’t have to go to specific watering spots, because water is more plentiful.

At one point, we came to a big body of water. We walked through the water up to our waist; you would get stuck in the mud, and it would be like sinking.

Couldn’t there have been crocodiles? There could have been crocodiles… when we were on the mokoro (dugout canoe)…

Are you joking?

When we were on the mokoros, there would be hippos in the water. They are dangerous…It’s happened before that a hippo submerges and rises and tips the canoe… They tell us if that happens, to swim as fast as you can away from the boat, because a hippo will attack the boat because it looks like predator.

But what if crocodile where swimming away?

Sunrise Viewing of a Herd of 1,000 Buffalo in Chobe National Park, Botswana © 2010 Eric Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

The guide said, ‘If you get bumped by hippo, and there is a crocodile next to you, your time is up, it’s not your day.’

It was really exciting.

We did singing and dancing with the local people.

In Chobe National Park, which is all the way east of Botswana near Zimbabwe – there are more than 50,000 elephants. An unbelievable number of elephants, how close we saw them.

I saw one leopard, a bunch of hippos, a herd of a thousand buffalo…

We took a lot of trips at sunrise and sunset.

We camped that night in Chobe park – there is no fencing – just a kilometer from where we saw the leopard…

We are literally among the animals. They’ve seen a lion in the camp … They have had elephants walk through the middle of camp. They tell you “what to do” things.

So, when you are in your tent that night, you’re supposed to completely zip up because hyenas come into the tents – one guy’s face was eaten.

What do you do?

Hyenas are cowards – they won’t attack something that is bigger. The only attacked the sleeping guy .. So if a hyena comes into tent, you throw your hands up in the air to make yourself as big as possible and it will run away.

I would hear scratching at the tent at night – hear all this wildlife.

The wake-up call in Chobe is the lion’s call – a loud rumbling call it makes when it catches its prey – the call comes at morning because the lion does its hunting at night…

At Victoria Falls, we woke especially early because I wanted to see the sunrise, but it was so overcast, we didn’t have a sunrise – It wasn’t as special as I thought would be.

Victoria Falls is this adventure destination – they have all this unbelievable bungee jumping. I didn’t do any of this. They have all these activities over the gorges – the highest bungee jump. Scariest thing. Just being up there, made my heart race…

He did this thing, the gorge swing…. normally when you bungee jump, as you fall, you normally feel the resistance of the bungee and bounce and bounce until you stop.

But with this thing, you are free falling, and you don’t feel any resistance, and at the bottom, a pulley goes all across the gorge… so you fall straight down, then swing back and forth… (I watched).

The truck fits 26 but there were only 11 of us in the group …and there were a few pretty long drives, 5 and 6 hours…

I was surprised – I thought it would just be young people, but we had a 73-year old guy and a couple that was 68. There was also a couple who were on their honeymoon.

There was just one other American (a girl from Seattle), the rest were from Australia and New Zealand.

At our final dinner, I ate wart hog (the most delicious meat ever had), alligator tail, worms.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2010 Eric Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Weren’t you fearful camping with the animals so close by; traveling in the water in a dugout canoe with hippos and crocodiles, walking through such high water and tall grass?

There were a lot of times that I felt uncertainty – such a new experience – kind of scary. I have a travel journal of what we did… was kind of funny – was thinking about the dangers of camping…but then seemed it was the reverse: thought about the dangers of living in a big city like New York- murder, automobiles, trains, and all these opportunities to get hurt; then you think about the wild, the lion that could eat you but in reality the city is far more dangerous place.

My first day in Capetown, we woke at 5 a.m. and climbed Devil’s Peak mountain, which overlooks the city and the ocean, and the mountain range in the distance and saw the sunrise… the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen.

I just got back from surfing in Capetown -it’s a haven for great white sharks…. Amazing.

We’re staying on the campus of University of Capetown with a friend who is abroad here for the semester.

We leave early tomorrow for Mpopo, in a northern province of South Africa.

–Eric Leiberman, Correspondent

This 10-day safari camping trip, “Backroads of Botswana” is priced from $760 plus a $300 fee (the May 23-June 1 trip was $950 plus the $300 fee (you will pay extra for transfers to/from the airport; you can get a visa when you enter Zimbabwe for $30).

Based in Australia, Gecko’s Adventures offers authentic experiences and a genuine alternative to backpacking. Trips are designed for younger travelers on a budget but include entrance fees to the ‘must see’ sights (but don’t wasting money on unnecessary frills). Itineraries utilize public transport and basic twin share accommodations in small locally owned hotels, the occasional multi-share, or simply floor space in a jungle or village hut. Many trips involve some physical activity, the occasional long traveling day and you will need to carry your own bags. On camping trips, meals are freshly prepared by a camp cook, but you are expected to put up and take down your tent, and assist with camp chores. Trips are guided by local tour leaders who are passionate about their homeland.” This is travel, grassroots style – basic but rewarding.”

What’s included: An experienced driver, guide and camp cook accompany this safari; local specialist guides in the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta; all park fees; all camping equipment; 8 nights camping, 1 night lodge; transport in custom built safari vehicle, 4WD and mokoro (dugout canoe)

The group travels in a custom-built safari vehicle that can take a maximum of 24 clients. There are large opening windows, providing unrestricted game viewing and photographic opportunities, and on-board there are useful reference books about the flora and fauna that you may encounter during your safari. The large dome tents are spacious and quick to erect with the sides covered in mosquito netting and foam mattresses provided to enable you to sleep in comfort. A comfortable folding chair is also supplied for each passenger. In addition, all communal camping equipment is carried on board together with on-board cool boxes. You need to bring your own sleeping bag and it is also recommended that you bring a pillow or purchase one locally for added comfort.

In fact, the description the company offers of the trip, sounds pretty accurate: “Combine the fantastic wildlife of Chobe National Park with the stunning scenery of Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls to make this one of the best trips on offer. We travel from Pretoria to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, where we experience our first taste of the African wildlife. There is a chance to learn more about this community based conservation effort through local guides, as well as enjoy an optional night drive which may well be the highlight of your visit. Travelling along the back roads of Botswana we arrive at Okavango Delta, where we explore the most spectacular floodplain in the world using traditional mokoros (dug-out canoes) and on foot. The birdlife is prolific and the sunsets are simply spectacular. Travelling past Makgadikgadi Pan we continue to Chobe National Park and spending a day game viewing in open four-wheel drive vehicles and on boats. We watch large herds of elephant play in the river, hippo relaxing at the water’s edge, antelope frolicking through the grasslands and, with a bit of luck, lions keeping watch over their territory. To top it all off we finish in Victoria Falls, the adrenalin-filled centre of Africa, where there are a myriad of optional activities available for everyone.”

Adventure Center, which is the General Sales Agent for Gecko, is a 30-year old adventure travel company that offers over 1,000 adventure vacations in 100 different countries, including hiking and biking trips, cultural tours, African safaris, Antarctic expedition cruises. The trips are reasonably priced because they tend to be more rustic – which only enhances the experience – and tend to draw a younger, more active clientele. The company practices sustainable travel principles; groups tend to be smaller (around 12), and you travel with “like-minded” travelers from other English-speaking countries, like Australia and New Zealand.

Adventure Center,1311 63rd St., Suite 200, Emeryville CA 94608, 510-285-0680, 877-285-0680,www.adventurecenter.com

Thursday, 10 June, 2010

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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