Dumela - 'hello' in Tswana. Welcome to a very incredible week of traveling.
On Sunday morning we were up at 5 am to meet our 6 am taxi to get to the bus taking us to Nata. Our friend Landu (who had booked all our trips to the Delta and Moremi and worked at the bar at Okavango River Lodge) had booked us the taxi. Maun was another place you had to be vigilant about your belongings as you wait in the darkness for the bus.
Off we went without incident to Nata, about a 3 hour ride. We had to transfer to another bus to get to Kasane where we had reservations at Thebe camping for the next two nights. At first there were about 14 people waiting for the bus going to Kasane. Then as we waited over the next 50 minutes there were less and less as people flagged down rides and got different rides.
I was getting nervous. It had been a couple of days since we had been to the bank. I am a "Chase" customer and they seem to issue only MasterCards for ATM access. What you need in Africa is a VISA card. Stanbic bank was the only bank in Botswana to take our card at an ATM and I was told there were no Stanbic banks in Kasane. We would have to go to a bank and request a "cash advance" on our MasterCard from a teller and for this to happen we had to make it to Kasane before the bank closed at 4.
We also had another "problem". We had decided to go to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and since a year ago, Zimbabwe's currency had become the US dollar. I had only $50 of cash with me and we needed to get money exchanged to dollars or else we couldn't go to Victoria Falls the next day.
As we stood, waiting for the bus an "Executive Transport" bus pulled up. It was about the size between a bus and a van. I asked a couple of guys waiting for the bus it they would take it. They said yes, if there was room, but they thought it was full.
I walked over and talked to the driver and he said they had 2 seats. I indicated in the directions of our packs and bags and asked if he had room for those too. He said sure, just put them in the corridor between the seats.
I had no idea what we were getting into. I climbed into the back of the "oversized van" and found there was almost no room. I indicated to Louis to grab our bags and crawl in too. Like the larger buses, there were 5 across seating in the back seat. Louis could only sit on the edge of the seat, not even space to lean back. And off we went? we picked up some more people along the way. I was amazed the van could move, I was alarmed at the rate of speed we were traveling.
Louis looked at me with disgust and anger. "This is the last time I ever travel with you!!!" he said. "What were you thinking?!" Needless to say, the next hour was somewhat scary, most uncomfortable and very hot! And then we came across a police check point. Everyone had to get off the bus, with all their stuff, go through the checkpoint and then back into the van. This took almost an hour of crawling over bags and coolers in the aisle as everybody was trying to get in and out.
We ended up first at the Zambia border to let some people off and then headed towards Kasane.
Success&we got to Kasane without incident. Actually I saw the sign for Thebe (our accommodation 500 Pula - $65/night) before we got to Kasane and asked the bus driver to stop and let us out. We walked down the road, hurriedly checked into our accommodation and went out to the highway to get a taxi into town and get to the bank. We made it, got some Botswana Pula and exchanged some for American dollars at a nearby exchange.
We went to the grocery store to buy some food for our dinner and for breakfast and lunch the next day at the falls. We walked back through Kasane past some incredible hotels. One even had either baby or pygmy hippos and some warthogs and other animals roaming freely around the outside of the hotel. We spent some time at the bar which overlooked the Zambezi river about 80 km (about 50 miles) from Victoria Falls.
We flagged down a "real taxi" after we found we couldn't find a kombi van to get us back to Thebe. Our driver, who we really liked, was named Thabo and for the next 3 days he was the person we called to get us around.
One of the first things I always do when I arrive in town, is to begin to learn how you get out of town. When we got back to Thebe, I asked the desk clerk if she knew of a "direct bus" from Kasane to Gaborone. She said she had a friend "Lao" that worked on a bus and gave us his number. Eventually that evening we got in touch with "Lao" and he indicated to us, that yes there was a bus and we would have to be at the Zambian border at 7 am. He said he would book us seats for Wednesday.
While I was trying to work that out, I was also trying to figure out how we would get to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. For those of you who are not aware of what has happened in Zimbabwe over the last 10-20 years, it is a country which has financially crumbled. Inflation a year ago (before the use of the US$) could be 1000% a month. They printed $Trillion dollar notes which although useless now are sold to tourists as collectors items. The country has the reputation as being too dangerous to travel through and even "Lonely Planet Guide" does not recommend traveling through Zimbabwe. So it was with some reservation that we were even going to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side. Our other choice was to see the falls from the Zambian side, but the view was not nearly as good.
Thebe could arrange transportation for us there and back for $80US each. I figured I could do it with hiring Tambo to take us to the Zimbabwe border for 30 Pula (about $4 US) walk across the border and then I was told a Zimbabwe taxi could take us the 70km from the border into Victoria Falls for $5 US. So "Barry arranged" transportation at $18 for both of us seemed far more attractive on our budget than paying $160 for arranged transportation.
I learned that "Mr. Mugabe" had raised the rates for admission to Victoria Falls by 50% because of the World Cup to $30 each and we also had to pay $30 for the visa to get into the country. So when Thabo picked us up the next morning to take us to the border we had to go back the currency exchange to get more money.
Getting across the Zimbabwe border and into Victoria Falls.
Thabo left us off at the Botswana customs from where we would walk to the Zimbabwean side. We arranged to call Thabo about 5pm that afternoon when we would be returning from Victoria Falls and he could pick us up. The "Zim" border was straightforward and we walked out through the gate to the waiting "taxis'". A Zimbabwean approached us telling us he had a taxi for $40 US and insisted it was the going rate. I told him I knew about the $5 taxis and he pointed across the road and said for that amount we would have to share.
And share we did. Well, my 20 year old relationship with Louis had almost reached the end the day before. Louis was quite frightened about being in Zimbabwe and concerned about getting on the "right type" of taxi for the ride so that nothing would happen to us. Needless to say, when we walked over to the almost broken down Nissan, which smelled like gas fumes, it already had 2 people in it plus the driver. The driver was a very large, somewhat intimating looking guy and Louis was not so sure that today was going to be any better than yesterday. Newton - the taxi driver, had to give the car a push to start it and off we went. We hardly gone 5 minutes and we stopped to pick up one more person! 6 people in an old Nissan with room for 5, plus all our stuff and no suspension. I later did find, we did have good brakes!!
Initially, I felt uncomfortable but it didn't take long to start chatting and then joking with Newton. We talked all about the problems of "Zim", the change of currency and how that was making life so much better, but still very difficult. We talked about the wildlife we had seen, but no lions yet. He "joked" that there were lions along the road. I "joked" with him that I would "pay extra" to see a lion. Well, it was less than 5 minutes and ahead of us on the edge of the highway was this big lion with its kill. We jammed on the brakes and the big cat sauntered across the rode in front of us and over to the edge of the highway to continue eating. Newton backed up and we found ourselves watching the lion for the next 15 minutes. We then took off down the highway and I presented Newton another $5. We all roared with laughter and I told him the next lion would be worth only $3. As we drove the next 45 minutes down the road we saw many elephants and impalas.
Newton took us to the entrance to the Falls and parked across the street. He went and got a friend "Artur" would we later discover was his nephew to look after us when we returned from the Falls at 4:30 until he arrived and could take us back to the border.
Needless to say&Victoria Falls is one of the "7 Wonders of The Earth", what can I say? It was incredible. We got thoroughly soaked by all the spray and even the binoculars got water in them. We wondered from one side (while playing with the monkeys in the trees) all the way down to the other side of the falls and the "bridge" (which had bungee jumping). This took us somewhat over an hour and we walked over to a sunny warm place to dry out and get warm in the sun and to dry out the camera. After we were mostly dry, I suggested to Louis we to it again in reverse (forgetting about pictures) and just truly enjoying and experiencing the falls. It was remarkable.
The town of Victoria Falls. .
If you come to Victoria Falls, stay here not in Botswana or Zambia! You can get good cheap accommodation for $25 or less, or camp for $5 or you can stay at the new hotel and casino which is as nice or better than anything in Las Vegas. Or try the classic Victoria Falls Hotel for around $250 (double). Louis and I were welcomed "grandly" by the doorman of the Victoria Falls hotel who was wearing his "classical round safari type hat and uniform". The hotel and grounds look up the gorge and the bridge is dead center in the incredible view. It is awesome. We spent an hour on the grounds and hotel, looking at all the pictures, and wondering who all the super rich of the last hundred years were and how they had come to this hotel "to be seen and to play" in Africa. This is where "Stanley found Livingston" and is the place of great "African fantasy". Flying boats would leave Britain in the "20's, landing at Malta, Cairo, Luxor, Victoria Falls and landing in Joburg 7 days later!
We walked around the town, spending about 20 minutes watching and taking pictures of all the baboons in the park. There must have been about 15 baboons, many with their "kids", playing and sitting in the park. They were hilarious and oh so human like. Most of the mothers hated getting their pictures taken. The "kids" would show off for the camera, jump, running, hiding and doing summersaults to make sure you are watching. The baboons had the run of the town and proceeded right through downtown and across the street making all the drivers honk and drive around them.
We head back to the Botswana border and make a big mistake (one that could have been dangerous and taught me a good lesson).
Newton was about 40 minutes late. Thankfully "Artur" was there (he was part of a conservation group which had "kiosk stores" along the parking lot. We chatted with him and his friends and the kids selling stuff continued to pester us and never leave us alone. You must be aware that Victoria Falls seems like it is "off season". Very few tourists. They are scared by what I feel is very unjustified information about Victoria Falls. There were companies all over the center of town so you could go bungee jumping, helicopter rides, ultralight rides, a zip line across the river, jet boats, night game drives, rafting, rhino walks and more. Lonely Planets suggests you do not walk around the town at night, not because of mugging but because you may encounter warthogs, lions or elephants walking down the streets.
We were traveling back to the "Bots" border in Newton's taxi, just as it was getting dark, a couple big elephants and a calf walked right in front of the car. Newton said he had never hit an elephant, but it did seem we came a little to close to that happening.
We called Thabo, letting him know we were at the "Zim" border and then proceeded to walk across to "Bots" immigration. As we walked out of immigration to wait for our taxi, our phone rang and we could see a taxi leave the drop off place and turn around and drive over to pick us up. We got into the taxi and it seemed a "little strange". Louis said something to me I really didn't catch and the taxi took off with us up the road. I looked over and didn't recognize the driver. I said to him "your not Thabo" and he assured we he was. I was tired, I felt so confused, so many different taxi drivers, people, I thought I was just loosing it". Well, we had been hijacked and our taxi driver was creepy. We sped along the road toward town and then he asked us where we were going. I said to "Thebe" and we proceeded to drive to the front of our hotel with Thabo pulling up right beside us. Thabo was furious with the taxi driver that had picked us up. I was most embarrassed by the whole incident, but very happy that we were okay and back to our hotel in Kasane. We gave the "hijacker" a token payment and told him what we thought of him and then also paid Thabo and thanked him for following us to the hotel. We also made arrangements with Thabo to pick us up at 6:45 to take us to the Zambian border so we could get on our bus to go to Gaborone the next morning. I also called Lao to confirm the bus in the morning. I think I felt somewhat skeptical of our "booking" on the bus.
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