Crossing the Zambezi

The final leg of our Botswana trip involved two long, dusty days of travel to the Chobe National Park, enlivened only by the aforementioned elephant nursery and the regular re-fuelling breaks. The Chobe is a region in the extreme North East of Botswana that borders on Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Confused? I was, especially since the wet part of the park so closely resembles the Okavango delta and the dry part……….well, it’s like much of the rest of Botswana actually.

The wildlife watching during both the early morning game drive and the evening boat ride was pretty much more of the same: hippos, crocodiles, antelope, buffalo and lots more elephant but no rhino, zebra or big cats. For the enthusiasts there were some fabulous birds, of course, and our local guides made sure to impress us with their keen eyesight and encyclopaedic knowledge. Animal watching tourism is big business in Botswana as it is in the rest of Africa but I was to see for myself just how this particular country manages the “trickle down” effect.

A sight that I never expected to see in Africa: a safari truck full of Botswana teenagers yawning in the dawn light as they began this rather unusual school trip. Frankly they looked about as enthusiastic as any group of youngsters setting off to participate in something educational. A couple were eating their breakfast sandwiches (probably breaking all sort of rules in the process) and several had got out their mobile phones but none of that altered the fact that they were actually here, seeing their animals in their country.  Perhaps, like us, they were shown the lion tracks and had it explained to them that picnicking here might not be such a good idea.

Between the dawn safari and the sunset cruise our guides gave us the opportunity to take a local ferry boat across the Zambesi and set foot on the shores of Zambia. Why? Well because no one minded and because it was fun. The ferry crossing is painfully slow for the lorry drivers who have no choice but to use this route between the two countries. Sometimes they have to queue for days to get across. We saw a partially completed road bridge which has been languishing for twenty years, apparently vetoed by Mr Mugabe; I knew that Zimbabwe was nearby but I didn’t expect to actually be looking at it. We made the trip down to the ferry on foot and bought little carved hippos with a mixture of currencies.

So, on the subject of borders, how did part of Namibia get so far East when we thought we had left that country behind more than a thousand miles ago? Some ancient treaty or other granted it a spur of land (the Caprivi Strip) that extends along the North border of Botswana all the way to the Zambesi. As we took our evening boat ride through the watery channels that separate the two countries we saw evocative silhouettes of stilt houses and an interesting variation on traditional methods of transport as a group of villagers carefully lifted their bicycles down onto a small boat.

I spotted another group of Botswana schoolchildren and was told that they were probably visiting from the capital, Gaborone. Then I spectacularly failed to photograph a leaping hippopotamus because we happened to be passing an anti-poaching squad and were banned from using cameras. In support of these officers, I will have to accept that my sighting of an athletic artiodactyl* is destined to be forever disbelieved for they really need all the help they can get. Despite being a huge country with a tiny population Botswana has made commendable inroads into rhino poaching in recent years but the smugglers are so ruthless and so well equipped that the authorities can be understandably sensitive about their methods. To understand just how critical this is compare the situation here, if you will, to neighbouring South Africa which lost twelve hundred rhino in 2014. That’s more than the total rhinoceros population of Botswana.

*The hippo’s nearest living relative is the dolphin, after all.

Categories: Africa

1 Comment

  • nicola says:

    A friend who doesn’t like to give her name commented:

    And, at last, somewhere I have been before you…! 1985 crossed bridge over the Victoria Falls with my mum who visited me in Zimbabwe. Stayed in a lodge close by where a baboon stole the sugar bowl from the breakfast table while we were making toast. Later we stayed in the Hwange game park in thatched tourist huts on a ridge over-looking massive herd of elephant crossing the plain below. Water boiled on an open fire for tea at dawn. Smells, sounds, colour, wild-life, dusty roads and the night sky all unforgettable. One holiday I canoed with a small group on the Zambezi. We paddled dangerously close to hippos emerging from the water. In the afternoon our guide stood watch for crocodiles cradling a shot gun, while a few people cooled off in the shallows – not me, I stayed in the boat. Another school break I travelled by steam train from Bulawayo Gabarone. My ancient hippie friend and I had lovely old sleeper compartment, with heavy cotton sheets, clean and ironed, but still damp in the humid air. Same friend left Zimbabwe suddenly for home in a dingy London council flat, saying ‘I’m tired of this, I’ve done all this old colonial stuff before’, and left behind for safe-keeping an Ethiopian incense burner which still waits in my attic for her collection. And yet another year I camped in the Okavango swamps, viewing the wild-life from dugout canoe poled by a silent local. When no-one else in earshot, he told me, ‘We live like animals here. I want to be a mechanic in Maun.’

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