Caution: Potholes, Elephants, and Traffic Cops (safari pt. 2)

We left off at our wonderful cheetah sighting which was towards the north (and near the end of our visit) of Kruger National Park in South Africa. From there we stayed at a couple more camps including Punda Maria which has a busy waterhole right outside the campground fence. (Unlike many of the camps in Botswana, SANParks campgrounds are generally fenced in and gated at night.) With this waterhole we got great views of birds during the day, and at evening and night, many passing groups of elephants.

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an African fish eagle – both common and quite beautiful

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after drinking their fill, animals of all sizes are happy and playful. These elephants were having fun jousting and the sound of their tusks colliding was intense.

After our glorious days in Kruger it was time to head to our next park before crossing the border in Botswana. We enjoyed a great view of one of my favorite birds of the trip, a black-shouldered kite, as we exited Kruger and ventured back into the world of grocery stores and gas stations. We happily drove along compiling our grocery list when lo and behold there comes a road block with the dreaded “Traffic Enforcement”. Well versed in the corrupt ways of “the force” by now, we obligingly pulled over as instructed and since we were doing nothing wrong expected to be sent on our way. An officer (if you are being generous) asked for Gregor’s license and then proceeded to walk around and inspect our vehicle. She looked at the registration sticker on the windshield and then the license plate and then came back to the window.

Traffic Cop: “Your license plate does not match the registration.”

Gregor: “This is a rental, these are the papers they gave us.”

TC: “These should match, come out here, let me show you.”

[Gregor exits the truck as I sit and fume. He confirms that the registration number indeed does not match the license plate. Really?? He gets back in the car.]

G: “Let me call the rental company.”

TC: “This is a violation, we cannot let you go.”

[Another traffic cop comes over to see what the issue is and is filled in by his fellow officer.]

Other Dude: “This is a crime. We are arresting you! We are taking you to jail.”

*I know what you’re thinking, I’m making this up. I swear this cop used those exact words. I know because shit got very real in my head at that moment as I pictured what South African jail might look like (although I did just finish Trevor Noah’s book and it wasn’t sooo bad) but the moment someone says “We are arresting you” especially in a foreign country, you kind of assume the worst. As blood flooded up my spine I thought, ‘well, maybe they just mean Gregor’ just kidding, just kidding, I would totally go to jail with you babe.

Now, with our crappy phone signal and sim card that apparently doesn’t allow us to make calls, we try to call the rental company using WhatsApp. By some Christmas miracle, Gregor gets connected.

G: “Hey, we rented a 4×4 from you guys and we’re pulled over now with traffic enforcement and they’re saying our license plate doesn’t match the registration.”

4×4 Guy: “Huh. Well that’s a weird one. Let me talk to the officer.”

5 minutes and 3 dropped calls later the officer hands the phone back to us and Gregor continues to chat with the 4×4 rental guy.

[Chat with 4×4 via WhatsApp]

G: So what’s the plan?

4×4: Do you have R500 cash on you?

G: No, only 400

4×4: I paid him 500. Could you add R400 and will give you the cash back. Cannot transfer more than R500. We will meet you tomorrow with new number plates. They will let you go in 5-10 minutes.

So with the traffic cops paid off somehow, all we had to do was sit there for 10 minutes (presumably while the money got confirmed in his account) and then were waved on our way. Obviously this whole situation is ridiculous and never should have happened, but apparently vehicle ownership in South Africa is exceedingly complex. The next day someone from the company drove up to us (5 hours each way) with new plates and papers. The 4×4 employee gave us some story of the plate numbers being changed but no one told them. They had to get the plates made overnight and they ended up being too long for the rear plate holder. The 4×4 guy asked us if he could remove the trailer hitch, which was no problem because we weren’t towing anything. The whole process took about half an hour so not too bad except for almost being arrested I guess.

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at Mapungubwe! Giraffe, along with warthogs, are the most comical animals we saw. Often it’s just a neck and head sticking over the trees tracking you intently. Seeing them run is both impressive and amusing, as is getting a drink of water.

This brought us to Mapungubwe National Park on the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and boy can we say we were happy to be off of regular roads and back to driving around in the reserve. They really are two wholly different worlds. Unlike Kruger which was mostly flat, Mapungubwe is dramatically rocky and varied. We didn’t see any big stuff here but we enjoyed a nice morning walk (with a rifle-toting guide), spotting some fun smaller critters (a family of curious banded mongoose and a shy aardwolf among them) and doing our first real 4×4 driving of the trip.

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a group of wildebeest spot us on our walk
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baobab trees are awesome

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We spent two nights in Mapungubwe and then it was across the border into Botswana, which thankfully went very smoothly! (This would have been a different story if the license plate issue hadn’t already been discovered). Roads immediately turned from smooth pavement to rough sand and gravel, which would be the case for most of Botswana. Some roads are paved but these often have killer potholes. We had a beautiful afternoon and evening in the Tuli Wilderness under a huge nyalatree along the mostly dry Limpopo River.

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crossing the border over the Limpopo River

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an elephant track in the riverbed near our campsite. The host told us it was fine to wander around in the sandy riverbed until around 5pm when the elephants start moving through. We went down for a little while – nervously. Later, for sure, the elephants were crashing around – we had a small family come right next to our truck sometime in the night.

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delicious wood-fired chicken curry dinner in the works

Botswana charmed us in a way that South Africa failed to do. We slowly discovered how easygoing and friendly it is as we made our way north towards the Chobe River. The roads may be terrible but not being hassled sure goes a long way! As we drove north we spent a night at a place called Elephant Sands, an unfenced campground situated around a busy elephant waterhole. It’s a popular place and certainly gets you up close to these awesome animals.

 

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hornbills (or Zazu, if you prefer) are everywhere and are both cute and hilarious as well as occasionally obnoxious (this one is about to pull at the windshield wipers).
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yes, African sunsets really are all awesome
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breakfast. Eating well while camping rocks – thanks Elaine!

Driving further we reached our northernmost destination of Kasane, a town outside of the upper section of Chobe National Park. It’s also a popular place as a guided safari destination by being very accessible and having a high concentration of game along the river. We were here both to visit the park (and later drive down through it to the more remote sections) as well as to pop over into Zimbabwe to visit nearby Victoria Falls.

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a friendly family of banded mongoose were hanging out on the camp grounds and making all sorts of cute cooing and churring sounds

At Kasane we parked our truck and joined an evening boat tour along the river. We saw huge numbers of buffalo massed along the waterfront grasses along with elephants, zeebra, hippos, lounging nile crocodiles, and a vast array of birds. The boat trip closed with a phenomenal sunset across the water as flocks of sacred ibis flew overhead. This was the most ‘mainstream’ thing we did on our trip and we were definitely the youngest tourists on a big boat packed with retirees, but we enjoyed it anyway – sure was nice to be out of the car seat for a little while!

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the lush Chobe River is the first substantial water we saw on our trip
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waterbuck

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an endangered African Skimmer – one of those highly adapted, bizarrely proportioned birds

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Our next day’s plan would bring us into Zimbabwe to see the fabled Victoria Falls. We hoped that Zimbabwe was as easy and friendly as Botswana had been so far…

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