DESTINATION: A Tale of Three Boats - Chobe National Park
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Why the best of times? Because I was standing in the open air lobby of a hostel in the middle of Zambia as a gaggle of handsome British men lightly snored on the floor in nothing but their briefs while I awaited my ride to Botswana. On the other hand, it was only 6:00AM and I was still ridiculously groggy from having woken up much earlier to shower, grab a quick breakfast, and then take the hour long drive into Livingstone proper from my bush lodge.
The Lord giveth, and he taketh, right?
So there I was - sweat gently trickling down my back as the early morning sun began to peak its head out from beyond the horizon. The blue cotton of my v-neck t-shirt started to grasp the small of my back as the heat bubble between my body and my backpack began to broil. My ride seemed to be running late so I spent my time trying to tell which, if any, of the various folks wandering around the grounds of the hostel were joining me on my trip to the Zambian/Botswanan border. Normally someone meandering about with no apparent agenda would be a sign that they too were waiting for something, but the transient clientele of a hostel means many of the normal social mores and rules you bring to the table go right out the window.
I didn't have to wonder very long as the telltale sounds of a well-worn African vehicle appeared beyond the walls of the hostel. As it pulled into view the door flew open and a little man dressed in all khaki hopped out and bellowed, "Botswana! Namibia!" followed by the sounds of people grabbing bags and kicking gravel as they stumbled toward the van.
We quickly loaded into the van and were rumbling back into the city before most of us had even sat down. The van was about half full, about 10 people in total along with the driver and the man in khaki. We cruised down the main strip in Livingstone before cutting to the side and stopping at another hostel where we picked up another 6 people before rocketing off toward the border.
The man in khaki had been silent save for the times he had jumped out of the car to gather folks up, but once we were making our way down a fairly empty highway he turned to the back of the van with a smile and spoke.
"We are headed to the border now. Depending on traffic, it will be another hour or two. Some of you are going for just one day, others are staying in Botswana. Once we get to the border I will split you into your groups. The crossing will be on a ferry boat, as the river separates Botswana and Namibia from Zambia. For now, please relax and enjoy the ride."
I nestled a little further down into my seat and decided to gazed out the window for the remainder of the trip. I wasn't sure if it was the early morning we all were suffering through or if I had managed to be placed on the most socially awkward van full of people this side of the Sahara, but the only thing bigger than the amount of beauty outside my window was the giant wall of silence being built by every other passenger on that van.
I had tried at various points throughout the trip to make eye contact with folks and say hello, but no fish seemed to be biting today. As we ambled down the road in our rickety chariot of solitude, I prayed that eventually people perked up. Or at a minimum, at least some of the ones that would be in my group.
I knew we had arrived at the border crossing by the sudden explosion of people and trucks lining the edge of the road. A seemingly endless line of truck drivers and their giant rigs awaiting their turn to ride the ferry across the river. Our van pulled up as close to a cluster of buildings near the riverside as it could manage with the crush of humanity enveloping us before it petered to a halt. The man in khaki, still having not given us a name, shouted out to us, "Follow me! Do not get separated, push if you must!"
And with nothing more to quell the very slight amount of panic rising in my heart, the doors were flung open and we collectively started making a mad push toward one of the buildings. Many folks discuss travel in countries described as "third world" in adjectives similar to a battle - besieged by a mass of humanity seeking to tear as many fistfuls of cash out of their hands. That's certainly not something I feel when I'm visiting the furthest reaches of the globe, so you won't find that kind of language here because I didn't feel anything close to it. Yes, there were vendors set up calling out to you, but nothing overly aggressive. No one trailed me with offers and demands as I darted through the crowd trying to keep my eye on the man in khaki, which ended up being quite the difficult task as khaki was apparently the height of fashion in Zambia.
I somehow managed to keep one eye on him while the other scanned the crowd for vulnerable paths through the mass of humanity that swirled along the banks of the river. I pushed through and found myself entering a building with the words "Immigration / Custom" written on the side in faded letters. Inside was a sparse room with a few windows where staff worked behind metal bars processing entrance and exit activities into Zambia. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see the man in khaki - "Sir, your passport please. I will take care of this." I'm the type of traveler that can think of few things more excrutiatingly nerve-wracking than handing over my passport to someone other than an immigration official, but I swallowed me fear and handed it over to him. My passport in hand, he directed me to exit through the door on the opposite end of where I had entered and head down toward the water's edge where I would find more people from our bus.
I gently pushed my way through the queue of people as a endless string of "Excuse me, pardon me...." escaped my lips. No fuss or cuss from the folks in line - they must be used to seeing foreigners moving through the process like this. I exited the building and walked toward the river, where the chaos was much less potent. A few folks were milling about and chatting, which made me quite happy. Finally, people were starting to talk and be humans! The group headed to Namibia had been kept on the bus, so it was only those of us headed to Botswana left.
There were two British girls whom had only arrived in Africa the day before, exploring Victoria Falls before hopping on this adventure across the border in Botswana. A Japanese man that had spent most of the past month in South Africa and Mozambique photographing wildlife. He'd spend a few days at Victoria Falls and was now headed onward to Botswana for the next week and then to Namibia. Three Aussie guys that were enjoying a gap year backpacking from Africa to Southeast Asia. And finally a man of indeterminate original that spoke what most certainly was an Eastern European language but never could seem to get a grasp on English well enough to figure out how to tell us exactly which Eastern European country he called home.
And then there was me.
We sat on rusty scraps of metal that looked like they were used in a previous life for hauling boats behind vehicles, chatting away and introducing ourselves. We shared smiles and travel war stories, which I find to be the most common ice breaker for a group of strangers thrown together in a foreign land - tell me where you've been and what you've loved so I can tell you the same and we can build "community". From two strangers sharing a pair of airplane seats to this motely crew on the Zambian/Botwanan border, it's a dance all too familiar to those with wanderlust.
The man in khaki, who seemed to magically appear wherever his mind willed him, was suddenly among us and handing back passports. Once we all had our passports with brand new exit stamps in hand, he finally took the liberty of introducing himself. His name was Cedrick and his time with us was coming to a close soon; he'd take us across the river in a boat but once on the other side he'd hand us off to a Botswanan guide that would complete the day with us. He mentioned that he may have the good fortune (his words) of picking some of us up if we were returning to Zambia, but if he did not see us again he hoped we will have enjoyed our time. Another toothy grin before adding, "Yes, now let's get into our boat."
A variety of vessels dotted the shoreline, the most prominent of which was a large ferry boat where cars and trucks were being loaded. A good number of folks were also walking onto that ship, so I thought this might be where we were headed. Instead we made our way over to a much smaller canoe with a tiny motor attached to it's ass, where a shirtless man waved at us to quickly get on. A few of us exchanged skeptical glances as the seaworthiness (riverwortiness?) of this vessel was highly suspect. It looked like it might fall apart in the gentle rocking of a child's nighttime bath, let along the strong currents that seemed to be swirling the distance that separated Botswana from Zambia. It was far from the most suspect vehicle I've ever boarded in my travels though, so I sucked it up and hopped in. The last person to board was Cedrick, and once he was seated a crew of men on the shore took a running start and shoved our boat out into the river, where the full weight of our mighty canoe seemed to somehow defy the law of physics as we remained afloat. As the shirtless man attempted to start the engine by yanking on a frayed rope over and over again, I took note of the fact that there was only about an inch to half an inch of clearance left between the lip of the boat and the water's edge. One wrong foot and we'd likely tip over or take on some river water.
Seeming to sense some of the unease spreading throughout the occupants of the boat, Cedrick said "Don't worry, if we fall in there is nothing nearby here that will eat you." I'm thinking "Don't worry, we won't tip over" would have been a better option but "Don't worry, you won't die" is a solid second runner-up.
The little engine finally sputtered to life, like some sort of asthmatic smoker waking up after a rough night at the bars, and we started to glide across the river to Botswana. The boat ride takes about 10 minutes as you have to make your way across the expanse of the river and then head a distance upstream to the corresponding border checkpoint. While I spent a lot of my time silently praying that we didn't capsize, I also managed to take in views of the river and life along its banks. Little islands of land or floating vegetation dotted the water here and there, birds flying between them hunting for insects along the waterline. Women and children walking along the banks gathering water or carrying food from the stalls set up by the border checkpoint. Despite the risk of a face full of African river water, it was a surprisingly pleasant 10 minutes.
When we pulled up to the shore in Botswana, we hopped off and gathered along the shore. Another man in khaki was awaiting us, and introduced himself to each person with a handshake. His name was Adam, and he would be taking over for Cedrick. Cedrick remained in the canoe and once Adam had introduced himself to each person waved to us and shouted a goodbye before the boat was back in the river and making its way back to Zambia.
I'm not sure if this was an act of God, dumb luck, or status quo for this border checkpoint, but the process to enter Botswana was considerably easier than the chaotic atmosphere on the Zambian side. We were just about the only people there, so we entered the building and were processed immediately by a group of no-nonsense women, each with what would qualify as a certifiable antique computer in most other regions of the world.
It took our little group about 5 minutes to be approved for entrance into Botswana, and we were herded to an awaiting open air safari jeep with multiple rows of bench seating. Inside were four people whom would be joining us for the day, four missionaries from the United States that had made their way to Botswana from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They'd arranged to meet the tour here at the Botswanan border crossing as it worked out easier for them with the bus routes they'd taken than making it to Livingstone at 6AM. Recognizing the bond that happens between fellow countrymen while traveling, we became fast friends as our truck barreled away from the river and made its way toward the Botswanan town we'd be based in for the remainder of the trip - Kasane.
Kasane reminded me of Livingstone - a dusty but clean African town where life was lived much like it is in every other corner of the globe. The exception being the occasional jeep full of foreign tourists cruising down the street soaking in the sights and sounds, cameras pointed outward like the guns on a military convey. After about 20 minutes of gliding through streets and darting around gaggles of children we pulled into a gated hostel where we unloaded and were ushered inside. A buffet lunch had been set up for us and a friendly Botswanan woman invited us to eat as much as we could while handing out plates to everyone. The fare on offer was a mix of African and Western fare to suit every palate. I loaded my plate up with rice and ladled heaps of a fragrant African curry over it, grabbed some napkins, and headed outside to sit at a large picnic table under a shade-giving awning. As the weather was quite nice, everyone else joined me to dine al fresco. It was a little early for lunch in my book but I'd rather eat early than have an empty stomach later in the day.
I chatted a bit more with the missionaries. They'd been living in Congo for several years working on developing clean water and agriculture projects in and around Lubumbashi. They all spoke fluent French and laughed as they discussed their utter excitement about getting to explore some of Botswana as there was apparently very little to do in Lubumbashi. They'd originally been assigned to work in Kinshasa but were moved when it became unsafe for a period in the capital. They believe it was now quite safe to return to Kinshasa, but were happy with the work they were doing in Lubumbashi.
It was very interesting speaking with them about their experience and work, as I'm generally a bit torn about missionary work. I don't have a problem with missionary work that centers around a religious calling to do good work that serves as an example upon which interested individuals can seek additional information about the faith. I do have a problem with missionary work that essentially offers help in exchange for conversion though. These four definitely seemed to be in the camp of missionaries that don't try to give only when a religious text is also taken.
While we were never encouraged to eat quickly I think most of us were eager to get on with the events of the day, so food was devoured and everyone was set to go after about 40 minutes. Adam informed us that we could make our way down toward the water's edge behind the hostel and board the boat that was awaiting us there. We'd be taking it out into the wetlands around Chobe National Park to experience the wildlife and landscape along this section of Botswana that borders Namibia (there's a lot of borders around here, if you hadn't caught on yet). I meandered down to the water's edge and found a much sturdier vessel awaiting us. It wasn't particularly fancy but it didn't seem likely to tip over or capsize due to a sneeze. It featured covered, open air seating/viewing areas on two levels. A canopy provided protection from the sun on the top level. Below deck was a small area with a men's and women's restroom.
Once we were all aboard and the requisite head counting had been completed, the engine rumbled to life and we headed deeper into the wetlands. Botswana's Okavango Delta is likely the most famous wetland area in southern Africa and it actualy is close to Chobe NP. While we wouldn't get to explore that beautiful stretch of water today, the wetlands in Chobe we were told would also be quite beautiful and full of life.
I headed up to the second level, skipped the chairs, and instead chose to prop myself up against the bars along the edge. The engines roared to life with much more spunk than our previous ride and we glided across the mirror-like surface of the water away from shore. The head of the boat speared through the water like an arrow, cutting the perfect gloss of the surface into little layers of undulating glass. Behind us another, smaller boat joined the conga line as we headed further and further into the Chobe River.
We immediately ran into a crocodile's snout and eyeballs poking through the water along the river's edge.
As dangerous as a crocodile can be, it can only be entertaining for so long, and the boat sailed off down the river searching for more wildlife to observe.
A little treat was found along the shores of the river a little while later as we saw a small group of elephants making their way upriver. Parents lumbered along the sandy beach while little calves darted between them. This elicited squeals of delight from the group.
Once we were further away from the populated banks of the river, we started running into herd after herd of hippos - literally dozens of them every where. Baby hippos. Mama hippos. Daddy hippos. Gay hippos. The works.
They seemed to congregate in the isolated strips of land and grass floating in the middle of the river. A group of them would inevitably be standing in a mass munching whatever goodies they could find underfoot. Without fail they'd be surrounded by a gaggle of birds watching and darting between them in what I can only assume is some sort of symbiotic relationship that I'm unaware of and not motivated enough to Google.
We spent the remainder of our boat ride hopping from herd to herd, watching them voraciously eat their way across the river, rather much like the way I work through a seafood buffet.
After a few hours on the boat lost in my thoughts and the sights before me, Adam appeared at the top of the stairs and said, "We have seen the water, now we will see the land. We are returning to shore." And with that our little ship tucked its tail and headed back to the hostel. Even with the myriad of hippos we observed that afternoon, I think the best part of this section of the trip was the sheer beauty of the river itself.
A wide expanse of blue and green surfaces that glittered in the blazing African sun. All so flat while so deeply entwined with the world's history.
Once on land we were transferred back into the open air jeeps that had picked us up at the border crossing and headed out into Chobe National Park - the land version. We parked at the entrance of the park for folks to get their required photos in front of the entrance sign. I'm not one for those types of photos, so I hopped into one of the less than gently used men's rooms at the visitor center and snapped a photo of our jeep.
While the river was a never ending sheet of greens and blues, the land past its edge seemed to be an endless sheet of browns with the occasional green splotch dotting the landscape. The area we were exploring a bit inland as well as along the river's edge was mostly flat but had the occasional hill pushing our jeep into overdrive as it struggled for grip.
When you're riding around a national park in the middle of Africa, you're probably looking for the "thrilling" animals - lions, elephants, giraffes! Imagine how thrilled I was that the first living creature I saw as we rounded a bend was this warthog. Not exactly panty-dropping excitement but still, I did learn that they drop down to their knees to eat because their legs aren't build to bend. The more you know.
Next up we were able to spot a few giraffes meandering through a pod of greenery. Of course you can spot the tops of their heads from quite a distance as they tower over quite a bit of the landscape. In most places they're the tallest things around, dwarfing the bushes and trees.
I never really thought of a giraffe as a powerful animal, but when you get up close with them it's pretty evident off the bat that these beasts are packing some muscles. I mean, do you see the thighs on that giraffe above? Giraffes are apparently the Zac Efrons of the animal kingdom - they look scrawny until you take a closer look and realize they've got it going on.
We cruised a little further into the park and ran across a young giraffe play fighting with an older giraffe. In retrospect this would have been an awesome thing to get on video, but I was too mesmerized by the sheer power of nature going on before me that I never whipped out my camera. The amount of force they were striking each other with seemed large enough to knock over our jeep or a small tree. They were posted up next to one another like hockey players going into a face-off when suddenly one would rear it's head back and swing its neck against the other using it's long neck and head as a club, almost like a wrecking ball.
Once the play fighting petered off a bit our jeep rumbled back to life and headed further into the park. In a deceptively regular looking swatch of land our driver suddenly slammed on the breaks and turned to us very quietly with a loud of hand gesticulating. Eyes wide with excitement, he pointed out into the shaded area of a grove of trees. At first I saw nothing at all, but once my eyes adjusted to the shade I could make out the golden furry heads of several lions lounging.
The lions were female, missing the massive manes associated with their male counterparts. They repeatedly yawned and stretched under the shade of the tree while Adam told us they would likely remain there while the sun was too high and would only wander out of the shade when things cooled off a bit.
We moved back toward the water's edge and as we approached we saw much more wildlife. Which makes sense, right? The closer to water you are the more likely you are to see life. A variety of different four-legged deer type animals dotted the landscape as we cruised along. I'm not sure if they were springboks, impalas, or antelope, but it's likely they were one or all of those things.
Once we were down along the river's edge we drove along for a bit looking for packs of elephants. Adam told us that they tend to congregate in this area during this time of year to frolic in the water and wallow in the mud to help cool themselves off. Sure enough, within a few minutes, we were surrounding by so many elephants I didn't know what to do with myself.
They were all along the river bank.
They were in the bushes.
They were chasing their children.
And they were dancing elephant jigs.
As many elephants as there were along the shoreline as we slowly drove along, there were two or three times as many in the river on a large island. I started to count how many elephants were in view on the island and on the shore and stopped counting at 40.
This time around I was able to remember to whip out my camera, and got a little footage of elephants playing in the water as well as a particularly energetic young male elephant approaching our jeep.
After spending quite a bit of time just having elephants walk around us as they wandered into and out of the water of the river, we climbed some hills to get a panoramic view of the Chobe river and its riverbank as the sun started to lower in the sky.
We headed out of the park and headed straight back to the ferry crossing as apparently we were running a bit late and had no time to stop back in Kasane. We piled out of the jeep and said our goodbye's to Adam. A few of us took a bit longer to thank him and made sure to hand over a nice tip for the time he'd spent with us. Someone suggested a quick photo with Adam, so I handed over my iPhone and a few of the missionaries jumped in with me for the moment.
Based on the near-death experience from that morning's crossing, it seems they were going to be giving us two boats this time, both of them looking much more water-worthy than the dinghy we'd left Zambia in. This would be the third time I'd be getting in a boat that day, a appropriate metaphor for the transition between phases of the trip.
A boat to a new country, a boat into the wilderness, and a boat to take me "home". At least what counts as home when you're traveling.
I hopped into one of the boats and soon enough we were casting off and sailing back across the waters to Zambia. The man working the prow reached into his pocket and offered to sell me some of the notorious hyper inflation currency from neighboring Zimbabwe. A few billion Zimbabwean dollars for just $50 USD he said. Thanks, but no.
I love that I started the day thinking how silly people were to react so negatively to traveling in places like Africa and Asia as they perceive them as cesspools of fraud just waiting to take advantage of you, only to be approached by this man in one of the classic tourist trap schemes in this part of the world. Just a little bit of fun to end my evening I suppose. After all, it wouldn't be Africa if it didn't turn your perceptions on their head at least once a day.
Once back in Zambia we pushed through the slightly less insane crowd of folks on the shores of the river and hopped back into an awaiting van. It may have been the same van as that morning but I was too tired at this point to really focus on anything but finding a comfortable seat to hunker down in and drift off to sleep. And that's exactly what I did as our van lumbered off toward Livingstone as the sun set, rocked violently to sleep by the potholes and rocks every few feet.