From the Mavhuradonha Wilderness to….Ottawa, Canada?

That’s right. As we create this entry, we are sitting high in a hotel suite overlooking downtown Ottawa, spending two weeks in self-isolation. It’s a long way from the African savanna. Anyway, to take up where we left off…

In Senyati Safari Camp, we enjoy a covered bathroom/living space that comes with our campsite.

We never get tired of watching the elephants at the watering hole.

We can’t take our South African rental car into Zimbabwe. So we arrange a land transfer to Victoria Falls (in Zimbabwe) and rent another car for two weeks, leaving our car at Senyati.

Zimbabwe is undergoing several crises at once (before even taking covid-19 into consideration.) Their economy is in dire straits, as usual. This is the result – as it always is – of bending over backwards and using smoke and mirrors and a labyrinth of bizarre regulations to maintain the illusion that an utterly worthless currency is actually worth anything.

We get this stack of banknotes in exchange for a handful of US$

Our first night is spent in Hwange National Park. On our way back to the main road, we stop at he Painted Dog Conservation Centre. (‘Painted dogs’ are what they call ‘wild dogs’ in Zimbabwe.)

It’s extremely professional and dedicated. (Most of the staff we meet are women.) Turns out we were phenomenally lucky to have seen those wild dogs in Moremi.

Besides hosting rescued painted dogs for recovery, rehabilitation, and release, they lead educational programs for youth.

Memorials to late inhabitants of the sanctuary

We carry on to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city.

We go to Matobo National Park. Besides containing the grave of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, the park is known for its rock formations.

These formations are called ‘kopjes’ (sounds like ‘copies’). They’re found in many places in Africa.

Cave paintings are relics of the San people, the original inhabitants of the southern part of the African continent since, well, forever. (Black Bantu people are relative newcomers. White people even more so.)

Here’s a hunting scene.

This is recognizably a giraffe.

And this is a rhino.

We stay at the Farmhouse Lodge. Not at the lodge itself, but in their campground, a few kilometres away. We have the place entirely to ourselves.

Just the way we like it

Next stop is the Zimbabwe Ruins. (A running joke since independence is that the misrule of the Mugabe regime has turned the entire country into the ‘Zimbabwe Ruins’.)

It’s a tight squeeze on the trail up to the ‘hill complex’.

View from the hill complex down to the ‘great enclosure’.

A few more views of Great Zimbabwe.

Another crisis in Zimbabwe is a shortage of fuel. We are fortunate enough to have leftover US dollars from our trip to Iran: petrol stations that charge in US dollars are few and far between, but you can fill up immediately.

Stations that charge in local currency, however, have massive lines of cars that wait hours for their turn…

These petrol queues are everywhere

…and of course, many stations have run completely out of fuel.

No petrol today
I negotiate for a tankful in Chimanimani

In the Eastern Highlands, we spend a few days in Chimanimani.

This little girl carries her doll in a blanket on her back, just like mom.

We hike to the Bridal Veil Falls.

We really like our accommodation in Chimanimani. Dee and Jane, our hosts, have two friendly dogs (and a friendly cat) that keep us company.

This one is Rocky.

And this one is Carny. He’s completely blind. Always has been. We’re impressed by the way he gets around the property.

After spending a few days in Harare, our plan is to visit Mana Pools National Park, then take the Kariba Ferry as a shortcut (via Lake Kariba) back to the western part of the country.

As it turns out, Mana Pools is only accessible for 4WD vehicles. And the Kariba ferry is cancelled due to a lack of paying customers. As an alternative, we visit the little-visited Mavhuradonha Wilderness, tucked up against the Mozambique border.

Remote, but beautiful

Then we begin our mad dash for Johannesburg – it’s a full day’s drive to Bulawayo and another to Victoria Falls.

In Vic Falls, we stop for a glass of wine at the Victoria Falls Hotel.

It’s a wonderful old pile of colonial decadence.

The falls themselves are pretty cool.

Also known as ‘ Mosi-oa-Tunya‘….

We get thoroughly soaked walking the path that faces the falls.

…that is, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’

This is our last act of overt tourism before we make a beeline for Johannesburg in an attempt to beat the national border lockdowns that are nipping at our heels.

Sight or Insight of the Day – What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Beware of black swan events!

Coming your way soon…

We wind up traveling from the northeast corner of Zimbabwe all the way back to Canada with breathtaking speed.

  • Beginning at dawn in Mavhurdonha, we drive to Bulawayo – virtually the length of the country.
  • We plan to spend a few more nights in Hwange National Park, but decide to head straight to Victoria Falls instead.
  • We drop off our Zimbabwe rental car and get an overland transfer back to Botswana.
  • After a night in Senyati Lodge, we drive to Francistown, Botswana.
  • Next day, we cross the border into South Africa and drive to Johannesburg.
  • That very night, we decide we’d better try and catch a flight back to Canada ASAP. We manage to find one the next day (in theory).
  • We arrive at the airport. While waiting to check in, we are told by Turkish Airways that the Istanbul-Canada leg of our flight ‘is cancelled’.
  • My sister manages to book us on a flight that day: Johannesburg – Amsterdam – Paris – Montreal.
  • Next evening, we arrive in Montreal, where we are met by my sister and brother-in-law in two cars.
  • We overnight near the airport and drive to Ottawa the next morning.
  • We check into a very comfortable high-rise apartment-hotel for our obligatory two-week quarantine.

Now we stare at each other in disbelief – just a few days ago, weren’t we sitting in our shorts & T-shirts having a barbecue, marveling at the sky full of stars while a family of elephants pass silently in the dark three metres away? Today we’re looking out over downtown Ottawa at the ass-end of a Canadian winter.

So our random rambles may now be over. We don’t know what the near future brings. But neither does anyone else. Happy ramblin’, everyone. Stay safe. We’ll see you on the other side of this thing.

And remember: Life is a Highway.

Makgadikgadi Pan and Chobe

From Maun, we drive to the area of the Makgadikgadi Pan.

We pitch our tent at Planet Baobab. The covered tent sites are a bonus.

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Name checks out: there are majestic baobabs throughout the property.

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One big tree
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Poolside Baobab
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A hammock with a baobab view
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Beauty and the Baobab

We arrange a dawn safari to visit a meerkat colony.

Along the way, we see hundreds – maybe thousands – of zebras. Apparently, this migration is the second-largest one in the world.

Striped lightning

Zebras can run surprisingly fast.

Breakfast is eaten after sunup. It’s cool in the early morning here.

A golden orb web spider hitches a ride.

golden orb web spider

We are told that meerkats prefer to stay in their burrows when the weather is this cool. So we’re lucky to find a group of hardy ones that are out and about.

Three adults and a baby
Pretty darn cute
Meerkat in a typical ‘on guard’ pose

We are amazed how close you can get to them.

A blustery day

The Makgadikgadi Pan, according to Wikipedia, is one of the largest salt flats in the world.

On the way back, we stop in a wee settlement and buy some marula nuts.

The strong wind moves the tall grass in a hypnotic ballet.

We pass through Gweta village on our way back to Planet Baobab.

London, Paris, Milan, Gweta…

It’s a long, flat drive to Chobe National Park.

We go on a safari in Chobe.

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Let’s do this!‘ – our guide’s favourite phrase

The Chobe River divides Botswana from Namibia and gives the park its name.

A lion appears in the road. (About 30 seconds after I say ‘Now we’ll probably see a lion’ when our guide gets out to fix a loose battery terminal in our non-starting safari vehicle.)

Call me Leo

He is very casual as he saunters down the road. We follow him for ten minutes or so.

He stops to watch some young hippos play-fighting by the river.

Another safari vehicle joins in stalking the big guy.

He decides if it’s worth his while to try for an impala.

He doesn’t even spare a glance as he marches along, metres away from us.

The lion eventually tires of our company and heads off into the bush.

Elsewhere in the park, we come across a flock of marabou storks.

Marabout storks are counted among the ‘Ugly Five‘.

We stay at the Senyati Safari Camp, not far from Chobe. On the drive to nearby Kasane to do some shopping, elephants crossing the road are a common sight.

Senyati has a waterhole in front of the lodge that attracts all kinds of animals, especially elephants.

They also have a cool ‘photography bunker’. You go through a short tunnel and get a waterhole-side view.

It’s a nice way to end the day. Especially because Botswana has dozens of lodges where the guests pay 500-plus US$ per day (and per person!) to enjoy something similar.

We, on the other hand, pay 20 US$ per day to camp. (Of course, in this unfenced camp, you might get squashed by an elephant in your tent. Or visited by hyenas or leopards in the night.)

Sight or Insight of the Day

On the way to Chobe, we spot an incongruous trailer from England.

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A long way from home

We later find at the Botswana-Zimbabwe border scores of unlikely vehicles from the UK. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Okavango and Beyond

We see our last entry is dated February 29th – leap day! As is common in Africa, we go weeks at a time without finding decent WiFi.

Anyway – in Maun, we stay in a covered tent at the Okavango River Lodge.

A lively place, but our waterfront site is very relaxing.

We book a safari to the Moremi Game Reserve, departing at dawn. We are joined by Durk, who is days away from retirement from the Netherlands foreign service.

Goats do roam

Our guide introduces himself as ‘Frog. Just call me Frog.’ OK.

An opportunistic horn-bill tries to panhandle some food while we have breakfast at the park gate.

An elephant enjoys his breakfast, too.

As do the zebras.

Giraffes, too.

A pack of wild dogs crosses the road. We follow them to a nearby waterhole.

There are four or five hyenas gnawing on the remains of a buffalo in the waterhole.

We can hear the bones cracking when the hyenas bite.

Our guide says he has never been this close to a pack of wild dogs – or seen so many at one time.

The wild dogs cry out in the night…

We confirm later – in Zimbabwe – that seeing a pack of wild dogs is indeed a rare encounter.

There is a tense standoff between the two groups.

Jets versus Sharks

We carry on. A troop of baboons doze in the road.

Looks like a yoga pose

An unusual sight – a party of banded mongooses scamper by. They stop to cavort with the young baboons for several minutes.

A lot of what we see is flat grassland.

A crocodile the size of a Buick crosses our path.

Lunchtime. We have a picnic in a shady grove after Frog makes sure there aren’t any dangerous critters in the area.

Frog, Maria, and Durk

After lunch, we pass a hippo pool.

Next day, we arrange a trip by mokoro through a part of the Okavango Delta.

Durk joins us for this excursion as well.

There are Monet-esque lily pads everywhere.

Those distance dark spots in the lake? They’re hippos, keeping an eye out so we don’t get too close.

Hippos kill around 500 people in Africa per year. Slightly different than the Disney hippos.

A marbled reed frog appears in the vegetation. Mystery solved: our guide shows us the business card for his guiding business: ‘Reed Frog Tours’.

An island makes a good spot for lunch.

The black dot in the background is a hippo.

After lunch, we go on a walking safari.

On the way back, the sun beats mercilessly on Durk’s bare head. His poler fashions a cap for him out of lily pads.

With the exception of the odd palm tree on the horizon, we could be paddling canoes through Algonquin Park.

Sight or Insight of the Day

On our walking safari, we come across the remains of a long-dead hippo. Probably killed in battle with another hippo.

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‘Pachyderm’ from Ancient Greek παχύδερμος (pakhúdermos), from παχύς (pakhús, “thick”) + δέρμα (dérma, “skin”)

Its remaining thick hunk of flesh looks like a giant pork rind.