Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chobe Nat'l Park, Botswana

After a quick stint in Zimbabwe to see the incredible Victoria Falls, we caught a shuttle across the Zim/Botswana border to a town called Kasane. Here we set up camp at the Chobe Safari Lodge and prepared to lick our wounds and take some fun game safari rides into the famous Chobe National Park. We hadn’t counted on both becoming sick but with sneaking into the pool and some great animal sightings it turned out to be the perfect place for recovering.

The afternoon boat cruise was pretty crowded but filled with tons of wildlife. Red Lechwe ran playing thru the swampy riversides around foraging hippos, sunning crocodiles, and massive herds of buffalo. Elephants came down to the water to drink and cool down. It was pretty fun to watch them roll in the mud and spray themselves with water. One herd brought a tiny newborn with them that has to be the smallest elephant I have ever seen. Skimmers (the b&w picture), saddle bill storks, and fish eagles combed the waters for food. The most exciting part was when a massive hippo started charging our boat. He would fly up out of the water like a dolphin then go under and fly up again. Our boat driver gunned it away from him pretty fast.

The morning gave drive was Heidi’s first real game drive and it was a good one. We saw tiny baby impalas, a beautiful leopard walking along the branches of a tree, and a female lioness eating a freshly killed buffalo. Hyenas crossed our path and a business of banded mongoose (picture) ran around looking very cute. Towards the end of the drive herds of elephants started heading towards the waterfront to cool down. One herd came right in between our vehicle and the one just in front of us. Luckily these elephants were on a mission and didn’t feel like flipping over a few cars before their bath.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Gorge Swing Debacle

I’m happy to report that we have made it to Johannesburg, South Africa after a very pleasant 16hr bus ride from Botswana. We rented a car, which makes me feel free and flexible again. The little Hyundai Atos feels like a sports car after spending so much time behind the wheel of the turtle. We are headed off to Kruger park next but due to popular demand I decided to do a little more in depth version of this ‘gorge swing free fall thru a tree’ debacle.

The Zambezi gorge swing is probably the scariest thing I

have ever done. 5 years ago I heard about it and went and it is about as extreme as you can get. Scarier than skydiving or bungee jumping I think. The swing starts out like a bungee jump except you are attached below your chest. You can step off the cliff forwards, backwards, head first backwards (called the roll of death), or tandem which is always backwards. Once you freefall 53 meters the rope catches and swings you like a pendulum across the gorge. I tried it all 5

years ago and loved it. So when Heidi arrived and said she wanted to do it I was ready for take 2.

Besides the swing you can also zip line, rappel, and abseil (which is like rappelling forwards, think Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3.) Heidi and I abseiled first which was a blast. Then we did the zip line, which is kinda child’s play, but a nice view out over the gorge. Then I really wanted her to go solo swing first but they were set up for tandem so we both harnessed up.

Heidi was pretty nervous which I thought was very cute.

We shuffled backwards until our heels were hanging off the platform. Everyone counted dow

n 3, 2, 1…. Then we both hesitated until we realized no “go” was coming and then we lifted our toes and fell into the oblivion behind us. It was so exhilarating. Then just as we near the gorge floor the rope caught but just a little too late. Someone had mis-measured the rope or the slack and we were sent crashing thru the upper branches of a tree. We swung out in surprised shock over the gorge, hoping that we wouldn’t hit the tree on the back swing.

I knew we had hit pretty hard, and there were some branches ripped off in between us hanging, but I was still surprised to see blood on my forearm. As the adrenaline from the jump wore off Heidi and I started feeling all the places where the branches whipped cuts and burns into our arms and legs. We were not a pretty sight. We were able to walk out of the canyon but trying to clean the wounds was almost more painful. The guys who worked there were pretty shocked as well. They said something about the rain yesterday caused the rope to stretch and the trees have grown. I wanted to tell them to hire a fucking gardener, but I was still too surprised that something like this happened.

We have tried to not let the wounds slow us down. And I took a picture of a few of the wounds so I’ll post them up. Looking on the bright side at least we didn’t have any broken bones or branches sticking thru our legs. I guess they make you sign that indemnity form for a reason.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Zimbabwe to Botswana

Things have been flying right along here in Africa. I feel we have been working well around a couple of tough complications.
One: The 'Turtle', our infamous Land Rover, took a terrible beating in Zambia and had to ultimately be retired after slamming into a huge cow that made a mad dash across the road. Fortunately no people were hurt, the cow unfortunately was very hurt, aka, dead. But the turtle has now been given to Kasane Nat'l Park to continue its great wildlife conservation.
Two: Heidi and I free fell thru a tree as we attempted a bungee jump type adrenaline activity called the 'Gorge Swing'. We still have some vicious wounds a week later that make it hard to sleep, walk, sit, etc. Keeping them uninfected and clean is a fulltime job.
Three: With our immune systems already pushed Heidi and I rafted the Zambezi and swallowed some bad water, or ate some bad bacon, etc, and both came down with some illness. I'm about recovered and she is still fighting a little but on the verge of recovery.

So with all this going on we have only managed in the last few days to enter Zimbabwe, go to Vic Falls Nat'l Park and see the falls, dinner at the Victoria Falls Hotel, cross the border to Botswana, go on a boat safari and morning driving safari in Chobe Nat'l Park (lion eating a freshly killed buffalo, leopard, mongoose, hyenas, lots of elephants, etc), bus it to the Okavango Delta, take a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) way deep into the delta and walk (with unarmed guide) right up on elephant, hippos, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, flamingo, saddle bill storks, and a steenbuk.

Now we are steeled for a 16hr bus ride from Maun, Botswana all the way to Johannesburg, South Africa.... hopefully you will hear good stories from the other side.

-Dai Mar

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rafting the Zambezi River

I’ve heard in the rafting world that the three greatest rafting day trips are the Nile, the Zambezi, and a hard to pronounce river in Chile. I totally agree with the Nile, having done it just a month earlier, so I was eager to try the Zambezi with Heidi who hadn’t rafted since she was 14 in Oregon. It was a beautiful day and they got us ready by feeding us a big breakfast. I was pumped.

Our guide was Tim and I liked him immediately when he started shifting people around to get the best paddlers in strategic positions. I ended up in the front left and Heidi across from me on the right. It was much nicer having her paddling across from me in a constant rhythm than the guy in the Nile who was as sporadic as they come. We busted thru rapid number one, eager to test out the next 24!

It is low water on the Zambezi right now because we are just before the rainy season. That means the entire river is open to raft and some of the rapids are shallow and scary. We hit some nice drops and bashed thru some sick waves. It was pretty funny watching the other rafts flipping over. By midpoint we had run the river perfect, not flipping once, but I knew there were some big ones to come.

The water felt great. There is no place better for white water rafting than near the tropics. Every splash feels great against your straining paddling muscles. One difference between this river and the Nile is that the current is constant which means a lot less paddling is necessary to cross big calm spots. Also the scenery was outstanding. We were in a deep gorge the entire day. Basalt towers and columns lined the riversides. It can best be described as a lush tropical grand canyon. We passed a few crocs slipping into the water and stopped for a few cliff jumps as well.

Then we came to No. 18 rapid. It apparently has a huge wave after the drop that sometimes the raft can get stuck on and surf. Sounds good to me, I like surfing. We decided to go for it and aimed straight for the wave. We hit it dead on and then hesitated. I could feel the raft slip backwards and start to surf violently. But just for a second before we climbed out and sped off thru the end of the rapid. Afterwards Tim said that if we would have slid back any further we could have been stuck for 15 or 20 seconds before flipping. Maybe next time. Except for Heidi slipping out in a ‘deceptive’ Class 2 rapid, and the smelly Turkish guy getting sucked out and under when we hit a rock we ran the river perfectly. Afterwards Tim told me that it was just wrong that I had done the Nile and the Zambezi without flipping. I think one flip couldn’t have hurt.

Elephant Back Safari

When in Africa the thing to do is to go on wildlife safaris. There are lots of different ways to do this. The typical way is in a 4X4 vehicle, you can walk, you can take a hot air balloon, you can ride horses, take a boat, or if you find the right place you can go on safari on elephant back!

Heidi and I were a little worried about the gathering rain clouds on our way to the elephant back safari but I figured it wouldn’t bother the elephants too much. There were 12 people in all, 2 for each elephant. When we met the elephants I was surprised by the range in sizes. There was a huge bull with massive tusk, there were medium sized elephants with little tusk, and even some babies tagging along with their mothers. (nobody rode those). I jumped up real fast when the leader asked who wanted to ride ‘Bop’ and pointed to the really massive one. Heidi glared at me a little.

There was a wooden ramp built that the elephants would shimmy up next to so their riders could easily get onto. But Bop was too big so we had to get on the old fashion style, by getting hoisted up, getting a foot in the stirrup and swinging ourselves across his back. Talk about a seat with a view. We must have been at least 20 feet up.

The elephants set off into the forest with us on their backs. The rain started coming down in earnest but we didn’t even slow down. Luckily they provided us with ponchos for protecting our camera gear. We walked by herds of impala, bushbuk, and a very surprised family of warthogs. The babies got spooked by the elephants and darted off in different directions. One was so shocked that he ran right into a log and flipped himself over.

The funnest part came when we crossed a deep section of the river. Bop’s head was completely under, tusk and all, with just his trunk out of the water like a snorkel. He hesitated and thought about sitting down in the water but we kept him moving. I had always wanted to see an elephant in deep water and now I have ridden on one!

After getting back our backsides were a bit sore but I thought not as bad as camel riding in India. The elephants had been ripping off branches the entire safari but never really stop eating so they greedily took food from our hands afterwards. It felt so wild standing right in front of such a massive animal, inches away from its tusk, feeling hot air blown on you from his trunk. We would put handfuls of food into Bop’s trunk and he would curl it up and deposit it back to his mouth. We would barely have time to reach in for more before his trunk was back in our face ready for the next handful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Up Close with Lions

African lions are just like big cats right? I figured just because they roared instead of purred doesn't mean that they wouldn't like a good back scratch just like a house cat. Hmmm. Well, Heidi and I decided to put this theory to the test. Here in Livingstone, Zambia there is a great lion conservation program called ALERT who is raising lions in a way that their future offspring will be totally wild and able to be sent back to national parks and wildlife reserves around Africa. They are able to do this by using 4 steps.
Step 1: lions up to 2 years old are fed by trainers and volunteers, and walked in the wild daily to get them used to seeing other animals
Step 2: Lions over 2 are taken out at night and followed as they hunt impala, zebra, wildebeest, etc.
Step 3: Lions are released into a managed wildlife reserve as a pack, not individuals. They hunt their own food and have to deal with competitors like hyenas.
Step 4: Offspring had in the wild by Step3 lions will have all the knowledge and sense of the wild with no human contact. They will be introduced into national parks where african lions used to live before being hunted to local extinction

Heidi and I joined in on the Step 1 lions. We walked with three 15 month old lions, 2 females and a male. They were much larger that I expected for only 16months old. Some spot were stillvisible as you can see in the pictures but their claws and teeth looked fully formed to me. 1 1/2 canines kept you on your toes. The lions were very relaxed as we walked them thru the forest. The young male did perk up when he saw a line of elephants crossing the river, with a tiny baby in tow.
Whenever we would stop the lions would also take a break and find a nice spot to lay down. It was then that we were able to walk up behind the lions, and keeping our hands away from their heads, scratch their back and belly. Their hair was much more course that I thought, which would be necessary for protection from all the thorny bushes and play fighting with other lions. If the lions gave us a 'naughty' look, or started trying to 'play' with us then we had a stick that we were told to rub in the dirt to distract them. Sounds like it would be less than mildly effective. But Heidi was still not pleased when I lost my stick.
It was pretty overwhelming being so close in the presence of the king of the jungle. They are majestic and incredibly powerful. Their paws were huge already, as was the retractable claw used to hold down their prey, and their eyes held a kind of endless wisdom that comes with being top of the food chain. Happy Birthday Heidi!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Leaving East Africa Behind

As East Africa fades away behind me I can’t help but think of all the memories, good and bad. It is definitely a land of contrast. Everyone has a cell phone but may still live in a mud hut and herd goats. The food hasn’t gotten any better but the roads have. National Park prices are skyrocketing and there is talk of doubling the gorilla trekking fee to a whopping $1000. Hopefully that is just talk. The lodges out in the bush can be awe inspiring for the few who can afford them but camping and budget options leave a lot wanting.

It was great to see the Mombasa highway undergo a major improvement during the last 5 years. I fear that it will soon go back to having huge ruts from all the overweight 22 wheel lorries that travel on it from the huge port of Mombasa to their inland destinations. Its too bad they can’t get the train working better, or even put in an electric train and really show what East Africa can do. Its amazing people drive at all with fuel costing between $5-6 per gallon. But two hours stuck in Nairobi traffic will tell you that is not the case. The roundabouts in Kenya’s capital are causing major traffic jams. I sense that Kimpala, the Ugandan capital, is not far behind if they don’t figure out a different system.

The chances to interact with wildlife are still some of the best in Africa. Places like Acacia camp where you can walk thru the Athi Plains with herd of zebra, wildebeest, hardebeast, oryx, and some angry ostrich, and getting up close and personal with Chimps and Gorillas in Uganda are once in a lifetime experiences. And flying eagles at Lake Naivasha was off the charts as well. The reef off Shimon, Kenya looked to be full of fish and lots of coral. The deep sea fishing also was bountiful although the fishermen tend to stay closer to shore these days as they are mindful of pirates from neighboring Somolia. Its amazing that East Africa can feel as safe, and be as productive being surrounded by the war ridden states of Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But they persevere on.

Showing the most perseverance is little Rwanda. A French speaking country left from the oppressing Belgium colonial days has come along way since it suffered one of the worst genocides in history only 15 years ago. Over a tenth of the population was killed in 100 days. Yet you wouldn’t know it now. It is a shining beacon of light in East Africa. The zero tolerance for corruption has made Rwanda an easy choice for aid money flowing in. They now boast the best roads (just remember to drive on the right), a much improved medical system (which includes medical insurance for $2/year), a ban on all plastic bags (they search vehicles at the border), and thriving mountain gorilla community (its where Diane Fossey spent her time).

Highlights include rafting on the headwaters of the Nile; lions, cheetahs, leopards, and the migration at Serengeti; river safaris at Murchinson Falls and Queen Elizabeth Nat’l Parks; making it over the mountains in Uganda nicknamed the ‘Alps of East Africa’; my first car fire; and many more. And of course Baseball 4 Africa 2010. It has been a month and a half to remember.

Now our group of 3 turns into 4 with the addition of my girlfriend Heidi here in Lusaka, Zambia. I am pretty excited about Southern Africa. Good roads, cheap camping, and incredible animals here I come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bus Ride from Hell

Welcome to public transportation. I love it. I enjoy the great deals, especially here in Africa. I thought $25 for 1000+km...how could I go wrong. Let me tell you. We left at 3pm on our supposed 15hr trek. A lady with a baby wrapped onto her back and a 2yr old holding her hand comes to sit next to me. There is just one seat next to me. I get up to let her in and then look at the lack of space and go ask the conductor if there are any open seats to switch to. Not a chance. He actually said, 'its fine, you just hold one baby.' Right. 15 hours I was thinking. Turns out my luck was about to change, she misread the seat numbers and was actually behind me! Hurray.
That is when the largest woman in Africa steps onto the bus. I didn't even need to guess where she was headed. She looked intently at the first few seats raising my hope and then bee lined it right to me. Yep. Right next to me. She sat and I waited for her to scoot over to her seat, then I realized she already had. Oh man. I would have had more room with the family of 3. I squeezed one cheek onto the seat and put a smile on my face. At least I had movies to look forward to.
Right. The only movie was locally done with subtitles too small to read, and sound so loud that it hurt the ears. The entire movie was people arguing. It was bad. But I guess it took my mind off something worse happening just behind me. The toddler and the 2yr old had started coughing, and of course were not covering their mouths. Guess who they targeted the germs at...right. Well as they had their competition of who can cough a lung up first I ran thru the possible outcomes... Ebola was the winner in my mind. Only 15 hours, I can handle it.
Thats when the first wheel blows. But we have a spare. That was lucky, I wonder how many of those we have. By the end I figured out we had at least 3, because that is how many tire blowouts we had. 15 hours...not even close, try 18.
At least the kids stopped coughing for a time....in order to cry. Right.

So I'm here in Zambia and I think I'll go grab a cold beer. Sometimes you just feel like you've earned it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Serengeti and Beyond

Tanzania has some of the finest wildlife parks in the world. We headed right to the most famous and perhaps the finest national park in Africa, the Serengeti. This huge park is the site of the mass migration of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles. We entered thru the western corridor after driving from the Rwandan border.

We were treated to close ups of lions, and lots of ‘cat food’ as I call the herds of impala and other antelope. I saw almost no other cars in the west and north or the park. All the tourist are concentrated in the middle where all the popular lodges are. But this time of year the migration has taken the mass herds up across the Kenyan border into the Masaai Mara National Park and they have just started their southern track back thru the Serengeti. We caught a glimpse of this spectacle as we drove far north into the park where our campsite was. We were surrounded by buffalo, gazelles, roaring lions, baboons, and thousands of wildebeest and zebras at our campsite.

The terrain of the park ranges from permanent rivers filled with hippos and crocodiles, forested hills, vast plains, and kopchis, which are groups of giant boulders that dot the plains. (think pride rock from lion king.) We found the majority of the migrating herds in the northern forested hills. After looking hard we were also treated with sighting of nile monitors, hyenas eating a fresh kill, tawny eagles, leopard and a hinged-back tortoises, rock hyrax and dwarf mongoose, and a leopard that had hauled a bush buck kill up into the tree to keep it away from hyenas and lions.

Once we hit the southern plains that fill up with the migration starting in Feb. I notice that they were almost completely devoid of wildlife. The grass was brownish yellow for as far as the eye can see. Every once in a while a kopchi would rise out of the grass, or an ostrich would run by. A few herds of elephant trudged from somewhere unseen. The landscape was beautiful in its own way as the hot wind blew through the grass which stretch to the horizon.

The main road leads out of the park directly into the Ngorogoro Crater Conservation Area. This land has been left in charge of the Masaai who herd their cows thru the plains, grazing the grass down to nothing. Overlooking the crater itself is pretty amazing. It is 9 miles across and is filled with animals.