Safari pt. 3: Close Calls, Close Encounters

Zimbabwe is like a middle school girl that makes up a list of demands before she will date a boy.

  1. Have US$30 for visa. No, this is not our country’s currency, no there are no ATMs that dispense USD at the border, no we do not make change. And make sure it’s not $50’s because those are usually fake.
  2. Have 2 blank pages in your passport. Because we will take up a whole page in your passport with a giant sticker that we have to stamp twice and then slowly fill in with red pen.
  3. Get papers for vehicle. Oh, you have a rental vehicle? At this border we treat that as a commercial vehicle so you will pay US$100 to get your vehicle in. Credit cards and Rand are accepted since we don’t want you to turn around. (At least a portion of this ‘fee’ was a scam for sure.)
  4. Wait in line for 1.5 hours. This time can be spent commiserating with your fellow linemen! A great way to build new relationships.
  5. Get your passport stamped. Congratulations! You made it to the front of the line! You now understand why it has taken so long to get here, there is only one person in the window for issuing visas with 6 others standing around. These people make the DMV look like McDonald’s drive through.

This is when I started to get really annoyed. We had made it to the front of the line and one person was at the counter, but it was a tour guide with 12 passports and as you may have gathered, this is not a quick process. After waiting 5 more minutes we realized the immigration officer was only on step 2 of 5 for all these passports and the impatient American in me came out.

Elaine: [Goes up to another window with two men shooting the breeze.] Hi, is there another window we could go to to get our visas issued?

Man1: No.

E: Well this person at the window now is doing a group and is the only one working, is there anyone else who is able to help?

Man2: You can ask Lloyd.

E: Ok, where is Lloyd?

Man2: [Gestures behind him to the set of counters where you go when exiting the country. The other 4 men are standing around doing nothing and he snickers at his cleverness.]

E: [Sticks head in middle window] Lloyd? Hello are you Lloyd? [Lloyd turns around.] Yes, hi!! These gentlemen over here said you might be able to help us with our visas, this man here is doing a big group.

Lloyd: [Glares at the two slackers and shuffles over to the other station at the window and starts our visas.]

  1. You got your papers for the car and your visas, now you just need a stamp on your vehicle pass so you can get through the gate. Yay! You made such a fuss at the last station they are now happy to get rid of you and someone comes over right away to stamp the pass.
  2. Go through the gate. No drama.
  3. You are on your way in Zimbabwe! Oh wait, no you’re not. In less time than it took to get a self-congragulatory cookie in your mouth you see a police checkpoint ahead.

Policeman: Turn on your lights and hazards, please.

Gregor: [Does as instructed.]

Pman: [Circles the car inspecting it. Stops at the back.] Sir, could you come out here please?

Gregor: Sure. [Exits vehicle. I sit fuming in the truck.]

Pman: This light is missing. [Points to the hole where the trailor hitch had to be removed because our new license plates were too big to fit with it on.

Gregor: [Calmly explains the situation.]

Pman: Well you can’t have this like that. This is a custom truck. You can see where the original license plate mount is and it has a light on the license plate.

Gregor: I see what you mean, but surely you see these vehicles all the time.

Pman: They needed to put a light here.

Gregor: I did not design the car. I can call the rental company if you like.

Pman: I am not asking the rental company, I am asking you, you are the driver.

Elaine: [Has had enough. Exits vehicle.] What is the problem?

Pman: Mam, get back in the car.

Elaine: No. This vehicle is in my name so if you have any issues with it you can address me. We just paid $100 to get this car across the border and we are only here for one day! It took us 2 hours to get through your immigration and now we’re standing here debating a trailer hitch!? This is ridiculous. What do you want? [It’s worth mentioning that I am on the verge of tears and yelling.]

Pman: Mam, get back in the car.

Elaine: I am done with this! [Gets back in truck and slams door.]

Pman: [To Gregor] You should tell the rental company they cannot do this. You can go now.

  1. Enjoy your day in Zimbabwe!

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at lunch in Zimbabwe – which we actually did enjoy

Victoria Falls is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, so it was one of the few stops on our trip we were sure we wanted to do. Somewhat jaded because of our entry into Zimbabwe, street vendors selling crappy trinkets on the street, the fact that somehow the woman who did the majority of reserving our campsites for us forgot to pay for our site that night and the fact that the falls were at their lowest flow of the year, a lot of the magic that I’m sure exists there was gone for us. While the falls were still impressive and we had a nice couple of hours (after paying another $60 to get into the park) taking pictures of each other on ledges, I think we would only go back there if it was high season and we were already going to Zimbabwe anyway (which we have sworn never to do). As a one night trip, it just wasn’t worth everything we went through. Just one of those things about travel, sometimes things don’t work out! Having been on the road for a full 6 months now we have had very few mishaps so we can’t complain too much.

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expansive dry cliffs due to the season – still striking!

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With much relief we crossed back into Botswana and spent the next day and a half exploring the riverside portion of Chobe National Park by vehicle.

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these little elephants are so damn cute!
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we got to see a large herd at the river drinking, splashing, wallowing, and swimming across to the other side, trunks raised high in the air

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waiting patiently
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happy pig

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we found a litter of 3 cute jackal pups, and this one stuck around long enough for photos

What would a self-drive safari be without a few mishaps, after all? Over the entirety of our trip we were scammed by authorities at the Zimbabwe border, threatened with arrest twice (once by our own rental company that we paid a lot of money to), nearly lost the back roof+tent, and had one slightly terrifying encounter with a deadly animal (next post). Fortunately the truck itself was reliable and had no qualms with the very bumpy, sandy, and muddy roads we covered. Our brains may have been bruised and our teeth jarred loose but the truck ate it up. We did deal with some moderate inconveniences including a leaky radiator (I added 7 liters over our trip, half the coolant capacity!) and a very punctured tire (conveniently went flat as we pulled into a campsite). Our most interesting problem, however, was an aluminum fatigue failure. I really don’t like fatigue: with a bike it’s cost me a broken collarbone, and over my engineering career it’s brought plenty of headaches and near-misses. Now halfway through our trip it decided to pop up and hassle me again.

We were in northern Botswana heading south through Chobe National Park on the longest and roughest day of driving. The morning had been quite interesting – we had started very early and as we jostled our way down a rough sandy track were rewarded by a group of African wild dogs. Dad and six pups, loping along with an eye on us but not too concerned, carrying on down the road a ways while we followed them. This was wicked special because these beautiful animals are endangered – there are fewer than 800 in all of Botswana and here were seven of them.

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unfortunately the light was still low enough that we couldn’t get great photos, but here they are!

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A little later on we were sailing along over deep ruts of sand – you have to keep up your speed or you quickly bog down, the sand really sucks at the tires (and fuel economy). Suddenly out of the brush dead ahead burst a 1-ton eland bull. Elaine and I both experienced a slow-mo moment as we got our first and extremely close look at this huge yet graceful animal, the largest of the antelope and also rather rare. With another leap that belied its mass it cleared the road into the brush on the other side, followed by several somewhat smaller cows. Needless to say we didn’t catch any photos of that encounter, though the image is burned quite clearly into my memory.

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here’s what central Chobe National Park looks like – quite different from the riverside

But anyway – the fatigue problem. After our eventful morning we bounced our way into and down through Chobe (the center of which was rather drab and uninteresting and very sandy – we had hoped to find some cheetah or lion here but no luck). At our lunch stop Elaine noticed, to our surprise, that the cargo cover over the truck bed – to which the rooftop tent is mounted – had completely cracked off of the support rear pillars. Not surprisingly the front mounts were also starting to crack what with the whole tent + roof now flapping around. Yikes! A side effect of this problem was that gaps opened up in the cargo area and now everything was coated in a layer of Kalahari sand.

Seeing the broken frame it was totally obvious that this thin aluminum wasn’t meant to take the weight of the tent shifting back and forth over thousands of bumpy kilometers. (The mechanic we later visited made the same assessment.) It was also obvious that our particular frame had seen a lot of use and had been (inadequately) patched in these weak spots at the welds. This was the second moment where I figured there was a good chance we weren’t going to complete our trip. Had we not noticed when we did it’s clear that not a whole lot further down the road – or perhaps on a highway – we would have lost the entire top assembly. What an event that would have been. It was fortunate that we were equipped with ratchet straps and looping one over the roof actually did a great job at holding the broken joints back together. Somewhat relieved but still unsure if we’d make it back to South Africa, we hobbled onward.

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unrelated to the story: hippos

Once we reached Maun – mid-Botswana, back on the grid – we got in touch with our semi-responsive rental company and they pointed us to a Midas that we were luckily near. They’ll sort you out quickly, we were assured, you’ll be out in 40 minutes. Yeah right, I thought, it’s a bit more an an extensive problem than that, had to be at least half a day to do anything meaningful. Well it turned out to be somewhere in between – the locals we worked with were really helpful and within a couple hours they had patched on some welds to help keep things together, though they recommended we keep the ratchet strap on. Good idea – the temporary fix couldn’t be as strong as the original and within a couple days it was also cracked. Happily, though, this story ends here – the vehicle made it back to Johannesburg intact, thank you ratchet strap! We were lucky – this could have been much worse.


From the vibrant and busy Chobe River we had driven south through Kalahari desert sands (which cover something like 85% of this France-sized country) out of Chobe National Park and onto the fringes of the huge Okavango Delta. Our next campsite next to Moremi Game Reserve thus brought us a whole new set of scenery: wetlands! Even though it wasn’t quite the rainy season yet this area is perpetually green and quite scenic.

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We had a ball here staying in our beautiful remote campsite and driving around through mud looking for interesting animals. Plenty of hippos of course, and lots of various antelope and the ever-present elephants. As always we hoped to spot some cats – our camp neighbors said there were many leopards around and they had also seen a pride of lions. Our first morning game drive, however, didn’t bring us either.

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usually hippos spend all day in the water and only come out at night to graze, so seeing them wander around is fun. They can move quite quickly if they want to!

Mid-day we were relaxing at camp intending to try our luck again later on when a guide from a nearby group wandered over and told us they had just seen the pride and where we might find them. Excited, we quickly packed up and headed over with our fingers crossed. And right where he said they would be – 15 lions! A big male, five adult females, and nine cubs – five of which were quite young.

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napping kitty pile

For four hours or so we watched the pride do their thing and for much of that time we were the only spectators. We took well over 300 photos with our front-row seats! It turns out lions are just as lazy as their smaller feline counterparts and so a lot of activity was just lounging. The cubs, however, were bursting with energy and it was almost nonstop play for them. Chasing each other, wrestling over sticks, ambushing the patient moms, and playing king of the mountain on a termite hill.

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A heavy rain squall passed through at one point, forcing most of the pride to huddle under a small bush – also like smaller cats, the lions didn’t seem too keen on getting wet. But the cubs were soon back to play, quickly getting dirty and later licked clean by the parents. We also watched a solo elephant wander into the scene and almost right up to a lioness before it noticed – both the elephant and the lion jumped and headed in opposite directions as quickly as dignity would allow.

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We eventually headed off around dinnertime, by which point a flock of guided game vehicles had joined in on the spectacle. We were thrilled to have had the pride all to ourselves for so long with the endlessly entertaining play of the cubs. What an amazing experience! Before we departed the area the next morning we took another game drive and found the family again a kilometer or so away, this time deeper under brush cover and chewing on a fresh waterbuck kill. Awesome! This area of Botswana became one of our favorites – we’d like to come back here someday.

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The next and last safari post brings us back into the Kalahari desert before wrapping up and heading back into South Africa.

 

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