Friday, February 15, 2013

Hey, It's Africa

I can't tell you how many times I have heard those three words uttered by family and friends who have travelled through Africa.  After being born in Nigeria in 1955, I spent the first three years of my life  traveling through parts of West Africa with my parents.  When stories were told about those years, they would describe some crazy event that could only be explained by "Hey, it's Africa", usually accompanied by rolling eyes.  More recently, my daughter has travelled to Africa on several occasions and always brought back her own "Hey, it's Africa" stories.  To me, it became a verbal gyroscope, somehow adjusting our Western brains to deal with the unexplainable sights and sounds that one experiences there.

Based on what I have read, most Americans experience with foreign cultures is attained by visiting Mexico, Canada and Europe.  As a nation, we are some of the least travelled people on the planet, and the average American has visited less than 17 cities -- in the US! In three weeks, we met lots of folks from Britain, Germany, Holland and France but no Americans until our last night.  In fact, most Americans I know who have been to Africa tend to go to Kenya and Tanzania for the animals and Egypt for the pyramids.

Why visit Africa?  There were a number of reasons, actually.  First, my wife was retiring and we wanted to celebrate in some big, meaningful way. Second, we had two free tickets anywhere Delta Airlines flew and we didn't want to waste them.  Third, my wife and I both have bucket lists that don't match exactly but we both really wanted to visit Africa.  And finally, the idea of traveling on our own at our own pace appeals to our sense of adventure and independence.  After a fair amount of research, we settled on a self-drive trip and booked it through Safari Drive, a UK company with 20 years of experience in Africa.  They offer trips in various parts of Africa including Kenya and Tanzania but when they suggested Namibia, we were both intrigued.  Namibia is a relatively new country, having only gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, and it's infrastructure and road network are easy for first time travelers to navigate through.

Safari Drive has a number of itineraries based entirely in Namibia. We tend to operate on the principal that if there is something that you really want to see and it's "in the neighborhood", go see it.  That "something" was Victoria Falls,  one of the seven wonders of the natural world and the largest set of falls in the world.  It also had the added benefit of being located in Zambia, and I wanted to experience one of the great "Hey, it's Africa" moments by driving across a border (more on that later).  Safari Drive was extremely accommodating and reworked the itinerary to allow us to pick the vehicle up in Livingstone, Zambia and drop it off in Windhoek, Namibia.

Our Route

Preparing for an African trip is a little more involved than booking your flights and packing your bags.  Both Zambia and parts of Namibia are in areas with a high incidence of Yellow Fever and malaria is always a risk.  We made multiple visits to our physician and the local health department to get the various inoculations and medications. One's passport has to be current and depending on the country, it must contain multiple blank pages.  We also had to obtain an International Driver's license from AAA.`

Our air travels took us from Minneapolis to Atlanta and on to Johannesburg, South Africa (commonly referred to as Joburg).  The leg from Atlanta to Joburg takes 16+ hours and is currently the fourth longest commercial flight flown -- a distance of 13,500 kilometers or 8500 miles.  We had the good fortune to get an upgrade to Business Class which allowed us to get some sleep en route.  We spent the night in Joburg with plans to fly British Air from Joburg to Livingstone, Zambia the next morning.

The flight to Livingstone is about 2 hours but it makes a stop in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe before a 7 minute hop to Livingstone, Zambia.  We could see the spray from Victoria Falls as we landed so we knew we were close.  Once we landed in Livingstone, we knew we were really in Africa -- the airport is a collection of Quonset huts around a main building.  The air was hot and thick -- a friend used to describe it as a warm hug.  The Customs process was fairly painless and after they scrutinized our passports and Yellow Fever cards and stamped everything, away we went.

Effective 1/1/13, Zambia requires that their currency, the Kwacha, be used exclusively throughout the country.  Our first stop was to exchange some currency and while Linda was doing that, I had my first "Hey, it's Africa" experience.  A young soldier, carrying an AK 47, walks up to me, extends his hand and says "Welcome to Zambia, man".  His grin was as wide as his face and absent the weapon would have probably hugged me.  The folks from the lodge where we were staying picked us up, and we were driven about an hour to Waterberry Lodge on the Zambezi River.

Waterberry Lodge

Our first task, aside from trying to recover from jet lag, was to get briefed on the trip itinerary and our vehicle.  Kate from Safari Drive introduced us to "Oswald", a 2012 Land Rover Defender, that would be our home away from home for the next 3 weeks.  We spent a few hours getting familiar with the vehicle and all the camping equipment we would be needing.  The biggest challenge was certainly going to be learning to drive on the right side and shifting with my left hand.  Kate went over the maps, the border crossing processes and we collapsed into bed, our heads full of new information.

Oswald would never be this clean again!

After breakfast, we set out for our driver's training and a visit to Victoria Falls.  Fortunately, the drive out from the lodge had no traffic so I was able to ease into driving on a different side of the road.  We reached Prana Lodge where Andy was scheduled to give us a brief driving overview.  Due to the amount of rain they had, much of his driving course was flooded, but he did give us a lot of information, and did a great job showing us the vehicle's capabilities.   

"Shut up and quit back seat driving"

Victoria Falls was as amazing as we expected it to be.  The Falls straddle the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the Victoria Falls Bridge crosses the Zambezi River as it enters a huge gorge.  We had been advised that if we just wanted to walk across the bridge, we would tell the Customs officer we wanted to go bungee jumping and he would let us cross into Zimbabwe without a visa.  After getting permission, we were immediately approached by a number of young men selling everything from small carved statues to jewelry.  They were persistent and we were still jet lagged so we ended up buying some items so they would leave us alone.

First view from the bridge

The Zambia/Zimbabwe Border

Victoria Falls Bridge.  Bungee jumping in the middle.

We headed into the Park to walk the trails to the falls.  By now it was raining, and coupled with the spray from the Falls themselves, we had a very wet hike -- great fun.  There are a number of trails from which you can view the Falls and we tried to hike them all.  Pictures are limited because I didn't want to ruin the camera before the trip really began.

After returning to Waterberry, we joined some of the other guests for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River.  Animals were seen, gin and tonics consumed and a great time was had by all.  It was followed by a delightful dinner, full of great conversation, lots of laughs and fun stories.

Looking across to Zimbabwe

Hippos resting on a sand bank.

A large herd. This is a National Park in Zimbabwe.

Between the hippos and these guys, no one's swimming in the Zambezi.

The first of many spectacular sunsets.

Tomorrow, the journey begins towards the border crossing into Namibia.

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