Brilliant Botswana

Impala2Owl6Lion Family 8Hippo1Seagle5Giraffe CountryCh2Falls14Like many other words and expressions (“awesome” springs immediately to mind), the concept of the “bucket list” is now overdone to the point where for some people it includes just about everything that might conceivably be packed into a lifetime. For that we can probably thank Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and one of those films that lives well beyond its immediate screen experience. That said, it has been a long-time desire of mine to get to a game park in Africa and see the animals in the wild. As we were landed in Capetown and en route to Europe, here was the perfect opportunity.
So, from Capetown we flew via Johannesburg to Livingstone in Zambia. The town is named after the (European) discover of the Victoria Falls where the Zambesi crashes over those cliffs near the intersection of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Elsewhere in the world (as in India, for example) such names have largely been changed back to local ones, but Livingstone remains a quaint reminder of Africa’s colonial past, especially in its British context. In Selkirk of the Scottish Borders, from whence came my patrilineal forebears, there stands a statue to Mungo Park, a local who went off to be, again, the European discoverer of much of the Niger River. In some ways, the postcolonial story in some of these places seems worse than the colonial one – Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a catastrophe in all aspects from politics to cricket and everything in between. For that reason, I declined to cross the bridge and pay the fee for the Falls view from the Zim side. That will show Mugabe!
This colonial-postcolonial issue in Africa is no frivolous thing, though. There is, of course, a new “Scramble for Africa” on now, something of a repeat of the later nineteenth century carve-up that saw a host of European states impose rule over large chunks of the continent and leading, eventually, to the tumultuous events of recent times. This new scramble is for both influence (as with China’s massive contribution of untied aid funds to many states) and resources (as oil, gas and mineral deposits all over Africa are set to be devoured). This has led to some curious conditions.
The problem with the mineral exploitation is that foreign companies are paying very low resource taxes (rarely more than five percent and in some cases no tax at all), so there is a very real local reaction. One paradox is that people like Thabo Mbeki now see Mugabe as a leading light as he attempts to impose serious resource rent taxes on prospecting and production. Given Mugabe’s record that is extraordinary, and given Mbeki’s own astonishing record for opposing HIV/AIDS medications into South Africa where infection rates are now in plague proportions, the overall story becomes even more bizarre: 36% of all females aged 30-34 in South Africa are now infected, an appalling statistic.
That sort of backdrop raises all sorts of questions about tourism and travel. To jump ahead a little: at the inadequate road ferry crossing of the river between Zambia and Botswana there is always a long line of trucks on both sides. The backlog is such that some trucks can be there for a week, with time on their hands. It is not hard to see the sex workers there, just another opportunity for the virus to flourish.
The back drop does not dissuade travellers, though, as thousands like me head for the animals. That began soon after we arrived at the excellent Green Tree Lodge run by Englishman Andrew and his Zambian wife, Vicky as in Victoria! We went out to the Mukuni Big Five Safaris site near the Falls, where a local cooperative works with tourist operators to brings skills and jobs into the area. Among their offerings is a “Walk With The Cheetahs” programs which we did, spending almost two hours with a couple of splendid animals and their handlers. Getting close to these animals is a wonderful experience, and taking them for a walk on a lead surreal. Their power and speed (160 kph) is almost unimaginable, as is the fact that they are more like dogs than cats biologically.
The Falls themselves were a great experience with the Zambesi in such high flow at the end of the wet season it was almost impossible to see the falls because of the mist that in parts was more like heavy rain. Very early in the morning was wonderful to walk around with almost no-one else there apart from a few monkeys running about. Unlike in Australia it is still possible to get right by the river just a few metres from the falls themselves – no great OH&S provisions here
Then it was on to a bus for an hour’s run towards the ferry at Kazangula and the crossing into Botswana, past the trucks and their hangers-on. At that point the Chobe and Zambesi rivers meet, as do four countries: Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia, quite a moment. Awaiting on the other side were some game park vehicles that took us to Kasane where we transferred to a Land Rover from Muchenje Safari Lodge. Just five minutes into that trip to Muchenje we saw our first elephant, by the side of the road running through the Chobe Park on the way to the Namibian border. It was a mother with young elephant and there they were, grazing away minding their own business. A couple of days later we would have to wait while a pair of giraffe decided to park in the middle of that road.
Our rooms at Muchenje, which sits up on a scarp over the Chobe flood plain near the Namibian border, was right at the end of the walkway from reception, and just off the pathway another three or so elephant were grazing away in the bush. Earlier that day one had ended up drinking water from the swimming pool, and appearing at the window of another room, causing the inhabitants a bit of a fright. This promised well.
That afternoon we set off on our first game drive into the Chobe Park proper and along the river. There were herds of elephants everywhere along with impala, hippos, crocodiles, giraffe, buffalo, warthogs and all the rest as well as a myriad of birds, including the African Fish Eagle.
Over the five days we went on every drive could, getting up at 5.30 am for a 6 a.m. start, then onto the run back into Kasane to get on a boat ride up the river, then a long vehicle ride through the Park to get back to the lodge in time for dinner before the night drive at 8.30 pm. The time and the days flew by.
The great highlight was seeing lions, of course, and our guide Synak became nicknamed the “Lion King” because of our tracking abilities. Early one morning he spotted three females high up on a slope, prospecting among the herd of impala a hundred metres or so away. He spotted the lions because of the way the impala behaved. Late that afternoon he drove along the shoreline, following more tracks, and found a group of three females and a couple of cubs from another pride. We parked no more than fifteen metres away from them, a sensational experience.
Synak surpassed himself the next morning. He found some tracks as soon as we entered the Park, and followed them for an hour. The tracks doubled back, so he turned around and drove slowly back where we had been. About seventy metres up ahead, a young male lion padded around a bend in the track, and walked straight towards us. We stopped. He kept coming but noticing we were in the way. About twenty metres from the vehicle he turned away off the track to bypass us in the bush, but got a thorn in a paw while doing so, and had to stop to bite it out, almost touching distance from the truck. Finally, he walked off and we were left with an adrenalin rush for the rest of the day.
Seeing the animals like this, it is sad and unfathomable to realise that poaching is still an enormous problem. The big game hunters of the later nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries were bad enough, but the modern villains are much more ruthless, efficient and devastating despite increased financial and infrastructure outlays by governments that struggle with budgets. In South Africa alone this year, over 200 rhinos have been slaughtered with over 1,000 lost through 2013. The guides at Muchenje and around the Chobe generally reckon that at least two elephants are taken a month despite all the surveillance cameras and army patrolling. That is probably conservative and it is certainly worrying even though Chobe has a massive number of elephants.
For that reason, recent initiatives like that in the United States to clamp down on ivory trading should be supported. That legislation has implications for antique collectors and, among other people, those who collect old guitars and pianos (which used ivory for keys and pegs), but that is surely a small price to pay if all these and other animals are to remain in numbers as part of a world in which we share.
Technically, this trip to Botswana might not be a “bucket list” one, because we will almost certainly return. It was magnificent.

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