Sunday Morning ~ Divundu, Namibia
July 8, 2018
Again, not sure when I can send this, but I’ll write it on Sunday just the same. We’ve made it to Namibia! We’ve put just over 1,300 miles on the car and made it across a continent! Not bad! It’s 6 a.m. and the sun isn’t up yet. We’re just at the end of the Caprivi Strip, a long narrow part of Namibia created when the British and Germans divided up the region allowing access to the ocean from the British colonies of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Zambia. (No Africans were part of that discussion by the way.) We are a lot further west from Malawi but still the same time zone, so the sunrise is a lot later. It’s a little disorienting since it feels like the middle of the night and we should be up and moving, but we sit in the dark in our tent, drinking tea from the thermos that George prepared the night before, talking, and writing. We went through a town called Kazungula where the four countries, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana meet, just like the four corners in the states. I was expecting some kind of landmark, but there was nothing but a few goats and a bottle store. We passed right through.
We left Lusaka early Monday morning, four of us cozy (cramped) in the car, with great anticipation of getting to Victoria Falls. There was a lot of traffic getting through the city but we finally filled the tank with petrol and got on the road south. Victoria Falls is probably the biggest tourist attraction south of the pyramids so we were expecting a pretty good road, especially since the road to Lusaka was beautiful. We’ll I was wrong. We went over almost 100 kilometers of terrible road with cars swerving all over the place trying to avoid the swimming pool-sized potholes. We averaged about 20 kilometers an hour and I was sure we would not get over the border into Zimbabwe in time. The borders usually close at sundown. There are two options to see Victoria Falls: the Zambian side (the side we were on) or the Zimbabwean side. We decided to cross to the Zimbabwean side since it’s possible to see more of the falls from there and Chris and Sarah were flying out of there to Harare anyway. It meant we had to get 30 day visas for just a three day stay since we were coming back into Zambia to cross over into Namibia, but hey, how often do you get to Vic Falls? This way we could see them from both sides. I’d made a reservation in the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, a decision I was starting to regret as the road continued to deteriorate. I kept saying, “Ok, there’s nothing we can do but keep going. Most people must fly and not take this road (the only road)!” I tried not to stress about it, tried to relax and not think about the nights lodging we’d be wasting if we didn’t make it across the border in time, and felt responsible for having made these arrangements. When we got about 300 kilometers from Livingstone (on the Zambian side of the falls) the road suddenly healed itself and we easily cruised the next three hours at a reasonable speed. We got to the border around 3:30 anticipating an hour at least to cross, more with a car. There are forms to fill out, lines to wait in, stamps to be gotten, and then documents for the car which involve several different windows and queues. I stupidly parked the car in an official spot knowing we’d be some time in customs, but it didn’t take as long as we expected on the Zambian side and when we came out there were two huge flatbed lorries blocking me in. No friggin’ way I could get out and their drivers were inside getting clearance. They take even longer in customs, like days, so again, I started panicking about getting across. About 45 minutes later, having inched my way back and forth to squeeze alongside the truck nearest me, the first driver came out and moved forward a little. The driver of the truck behind came out and moved back a little and I wedged my way between them in reverse with inches on each side to spare with about ten people guiding me. I almost thought I could drive right under it, and in my mini I probably could have, but this was a triumph. I was rather proud of myself for that maneuver. We’d still be sitting there otherwise. Then it was on to the Zimbabwean customs, another bunch of forms and lines to wait in. Chris said, “This is all our fault. The British taught them all this bureaucracy.” It was after five when we finally got into the town of Victoria Falls, catching a glimpse of the falls as we crossed over the Zambezi River. Even just a glimpse is magnificent. We couldn’t wait to walk along them on Tuesday.
I’d been to the falls in 1980 just after the war ended in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe had been elected. The country was full of hope back then and tourism was just starting after years of conflict. There was no National Park; you could just walk to the falls, which, despite the fact they are monstrous (1.8 Kilometers long!) you can’t see them until you are right up at the gorge. You can see the spray above the trees for miles but the actual falls you need to be up close. Now you have to pay to see them, thirty bucks each and it’s only good for one entry. Kind of a bummer, but I understand that upkeep requires resources. Tourism has exploded here. The town is full of lodges and restaurants, none of which have a view of the falls which is completely enclosed in the park and closes at sunset. It opens for a few hours for the three nights around the full moon which, I hear, is spectacular. I am sorry our timing didn’t work for that.
We checked in to our extremely simple and a bit run down accommodation. I was disappointed in the lodge. Ok, the name (Pennywise Cottages) should have been a tip off, but the reviews were good and it was cheap! But I always feel so responsible when booking for other people and was worried they’d be unhappy with the quality of our nights. The prices are quite high around there and I figured we wouldn’t be in the room much anyway. BUT, they did have great wifi and the shower was exceptional. Excellent water pressure, plenty of hot water, and cotton towels! We were fine. And we could walk into town and to the falls. Even better. We immediately went to find an ATM to get some local currency and find a place to eat. We were famished having had little in the car to nibble on for twelve hours. In the town, were several ATMs but at each one the guard said, “No cash.” Some even laughed at us to think we would get Zimbabwean currency. I knew their economy had collapsed and their dollar was worth nothing, but I didn’t know they don’t even use their currency anymore! They use American dollars. Some guys on the street tried to sell us five billion dollar notes of Zim dollars. I hear their biggest note is six trillion dollars. It would have been very funny if I weren’t worried about being in the same situation in a few years. Inept leaders can really fuck up an economy. But for now, the US dollars we had were just fine. We found a place that served local wild game and I ordered the wart hog. It was superb. George was a little disappointed in his crocodile, but Chris enjoyed his ox stew. Sarah had sausage of questionable origin, but she said it was good. My meal was so delicious, a melding of pork and wild game. I don’t know if it was farm raised or what, but there are wild animals roaming everywhere around there, so maybe if they wander into your yard you can kill them, I’m not sure. We didn’t ask. The restaurant was busy.
Tuesday morning we had breakfast and walked to the falls. It’s hard to describe the sight. Depending on the time of year it’s a totally different experience. If you come at the end of the rainy season you often can’t see the falls at all because of the spray. Ours was excellent timing because the rains ended in May and there was plenty of water but the spray not too forceful to prohibit us from getting close in most places. We got drenched as we got closer to the Zambian side but dried out in the sun a little later. The Zambezi River is enormous, and the falls are created when it drops off into this 100 meter deep narrow gorge that makes for the most amazing sight. One million liters of water fall per second over the falls and the only thing separating the walkway from the abyss are some thorn bushes. It’s beautifully done, natural, but still feels safe, thought heights don’t bother me that much. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world and we stood there and wondered what it must have been like for Livingstone to stumble upon it from his boat as it approached the abyss. One of the islands at the top is named for him (along with a million other things on this continent) and later in the season it’s possible to take a boat ride out there when the water is lower. THAT is not on my list of things to do, but seeing this magnificent sight is really something to behold. It is known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘the smoke that thunders’, and though the only way you can see the whole falls at one time is from the air, walking along the gorge, getting wet from the spray, and just feeling the energy is a humbling experience. It is spectacular, with rainbows from the spray moving along the gorge as the sun moves. No words to describe it. Magnificent doesn’t even begin.
We ended that day with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River with an open bar and people from all over the world. It all felt decadent and luxurious. I remember traveling in Europe when I was young trying to live on $10 a day. I’d look at older people in restaurants and think, “Wow, I wonder what it’s like to be able to order a whole meal.” Before we left the Peace Corps office some young volunteers told us they had wanted to take a trip like this but couldn’t afford it. I said, “I know. It’s one of the advantages of being old.” I do not take any of it for granted and feel so lucky. Traveling with good friends who enjoy similar adventure is just so much fun.
The next day, Wednesday, Chris and Sarah did a helicopter ride over the falls and then we had breakfast and said goodby as we dropped them at the airport. It was sad to see them go, but this did give us a whole lot more room in the car. We spent a second day walking around the falls, staying there to watch the sunset before going to a local brewery for ribs and beer. We walked about ten miles each day, so felt like we earned it. We had originally thought we’d spend a night in Livingstone and see the falls from the Zambian side as well, but on Wednesday the spray was so intense we couldn’t see as much as the day before so since we have to come back through Zambia to get back to Malawi, we decided to move on revisit in late August when the water level is a little lower. The Zambian side has little footbridges overlooking the gorge where you can see nothing if the spray is too much. So we’ll wait until the dry season lessens the flow and enjoy seeing some water after six weeks in the desert.
So, Thursday morning we packed up and set out to cross the border again (another hour and a half), got through Livingstone and headed west to the Caprivi Strip and into Namibia. We went through a town called Kazungula where the four countries (Botswana is the fourth) meet, just like the four corners in the states. I was expecting some kind of landmark, but there was nothing but a few goats and a bottle store. I’m glad we haven’t made any more reservations anywhere. I like the flexibility. We’d heard the road was good, and it started out lovely, but after we passed Kazungula it all. We were 20 kilometers into terrible road and George, playing with his new gamin device, told me I had somehow gotten off the main highway. I said, “How could I have done that?! There is only one road!” But the device said that the M10 was about 2 kilometers south of us. After 20 kilometers on this terrible road I was not about to turn around, plus, there was no other road! I never passed a place where there was even a question of a turn. (He hadn’t noticed since he was looking at the device, so didn’t believe me.) He assured me the device says there is another road that connects to the one we’re supposed to be on 12 miles further, so we can reconnect to the correct road there. Twelve miles later and on the exact same road, the gamin was now telling us we were magically back on the M10. I don’t trust those things. We were passing busses coming toward us and I knew they would not be on this road if there were an alternative. Finally, about fifty miles from the Namibian border the road was suddenly perfect. Not a single pothole. Go figure. I have no idea why, there was no landmark or anything, the road just turned perfect. From there it was a lovely straight road, bordered by waving grass dancing in the sun and an occasional cow or donkey. We saw no people. Acacia trees dotted the savannah along with the odd baobab. Gorgeous.
We planned to stay just over the border in Namibia. We really don’t want to push it and want to have time to set up camp and relax each night. We’ve got the luxury of time and it feels better this way. So crossing into Namibia was another hour of paper filling, ebola screening, and car payments, and then we were into the country I’ve been dreaming of! We got into Katima Mulilo, the border town, which has a western frontier feel to it, and found a place to camp, right on the Zambezi River at a swank hotel that offered camping! Sweet! We set up our tent, went into town, got some cash and groceries, had a meal, and were back to watch the sunset from our campsite. The night guards warned us not to leave any of our belongings outside the tent or car as “Zambians come across the river to steal things.” I was a little more concerned about the enormous hippo footprints we saw alarmingly close to the tent, but the guard didn’t seem concerned about those.
Friday morning I went for a run while George took down the tent as the sun came up on the river. Gorgeous start to the day. We ate breakfast there then went back into town to fill the tank with petrol and head across 320 kilometers of the Caprivi Strip to a town called Divundu near the border of Botswana where the Okavango River starts to spread into the delta. (I use the word “town” loosely. There is a gas station and a grocery store with mostly empty shelves.) There are several lodges, however, on the river and we got a luxury campsite at one of them. I love how these nice places allow camping and use of the bar and restaurant. I have never seen a campsite this luxurious, with it’s own enclosure, it’s own ablution block with reed walls, flush toilet, sink, and hot shower. The guards light the fire in the late afternoon so the water is hot in the evening. There is a private cooking area under a thatched roof with a sink and electricity! We could have brought an electric kettle for goodness sake. We spent the Friday afternoon sitting on a deck overlooking the river; I painted while George read.
The Mahango National Park is just 20 kilometers south of here and it’s easily accessible by private vehicle, so we spent yesterday driving around there. We didn’t see any big game, but lots of zebra, impala, kudu, and sable. The bird life was incredible and I’m getting more and more interested in seeing and identifying them. It’s fun. Like a little game we play. Last evening we met up with our friends from Blantyre who are doing a similar trip but started a week after us. They came directly here and are staying at a place just a kilometer away. We had dinner with them last night, shared a bottle of good South African wine, and traded horrible-road stories. They are staying on here another night and going in a different direction, so we may not meet up with them again, but it was a fun night. It feels good to have such friends.
Today we leave for a short 200 kilometer drive to Rundu on the Angolan border. Tonight we’ll be on the Okavango river further upstream. We’ll be ending the trip in August at the Okavango Delta in Botswana so it’s cool to see the river further upstream before it gets to the Kalahari.
Ok, up to make breakfast on the gas cylinder stove, pack up, and hit the road. Hopefully will find wifi later….
Love to all,