Lounging away a final day

Vilanculos, Mozambique

My final day on the African continent certainly wasn’t my most exciting although it might very well have been the most relaxing.

After breakfast, I grabbed my iPod and book and lounged at the pool for a couple of hours. There wasn’t anyone else there; occasionally, the big bearded owner of Pescador would yell over to me in a heavily accented voice: “Are you good?” Thumbs up.

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Down the sand road was another small hotel, Casa Rex, that I’d debated staying at. If given the choice again, I’d probably have picked it; the views were even better from the pool and the crab salad for lunch was solid.

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Back at the guesthouse, it was time for me to pack for the final time. Reflecting on the trip, it’s safe to say that this month in Africa has far exceeded my expectations — it’s also been full of surprises. What we hear about this continent from the western media doesn’t tell the whole story. It isn’t just disease, war and starvation. Africa is a remarkable place with remarkable people. And I’m already looking forward to my return.

My 32-hour, 10,000 mile journey back to Carolina, via Johannesburg, Dakar and New York, departs tomorrow at 2 p.m.

There are other tourists in Mozambique!

Magaruque Island, Mozambique

After 48 hours of not coming across a single other tourist in the Bazaruto, you could imagine my surprise upon seeing several other dhows moored at the island of Magaruque this morning. Others knew of this tropical paradise? Gasp!

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This was the most popular day-trip destination, Dumas, my guide explained, as Magaruque is the island closest to Vilanculos. Magaruque was small but gave everyone visiting plenty of room to swim, snorkel and walk its quiet shores.

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Much of my time though was spent snoozing away in the sun while my crew did the same.

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Manuel cooked up a wicked good lunch, a calamari pasta and crab salad. It was a fitting final meal on the boat.

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A little after 2 p.m., we set sail for the return to Vilanculos, arriving about 90 minutes later. We unloaded the boat and said goodbye. Back at the office, SailAway’s owner, David, asked me how the trip was. “Amazing,” I said. “The crew treated me like I was the only one there.” He laughed.

Back at Pescador Guesthouse, a big surprise — another guest had arrived, a solo traveler from London. At dinner, we shared a glance. Like we had both managed to stumble upon a tropical paradise that few had yet to discover.

Solitude in the archipelago

Benguera Island, Mozambique

Talking with the crew last night helped give me a better understanding of Mozambique and its past. The country was completely ravaged by a civil war that ended only 15 years ago; those who were raised during this time — like my captain, Manuel — were not able to go to school and, as a result, now speak only fleeting English. Perhaps the war’s only saving grace (if it could be called one) is that the fishing industry came to a standstill, resulting today in some of the world’s best marine wildlife. It is hoped that this will attract tourists like me and drive Mozambique forward.

It’s interesting and a bit unexpected to be in an African country where not everyone speaks English. Mozambique is one of the few in Southern Africa that wasn’t a British colony; instead, it was under the rule of Portugal. The language, coupled with a multiethnic, spicier cuisine, gives this place an exotic feel.

But Mozambique is also one of the poorest countries in Africa, and consequently, the world. The war demolished entire industries and the country has been slow to rebuild them. Unemployment is high and for those who do work, monthly salaries average 2000 meticais, or about $80USD. The country is now banking largely on tourism to aid in growth.

After an omelet, fresh fruit and some coffee on the boat, it was off to our second island destination, Benguera. En route, we discovered a pristine white sand barge. “We’ve never been,” my guide, Dumas, said. “Do you want to go?” Of course, I replied.

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Walking through this deserted island, with its small inland sea; sitting on a piece of driftwood, staring out at sea; this was relaxation at its finest.

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Suddenly, a small boat of fishermen came ashore, hauling in a huge net and solid catch. Besides my crew, they would be the only other people seen today.

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After some time on the sand barge, we sailed to Benguera Island, which was apparently inhabited, although we didn’t see anyone there. The boat dropped me off, allowing me to walk the beach at my leisure and snorkel some reefs.

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Back on board, we set sail for camp. Along the way, Manuel, our cook, bought some crabs and calamari from local fishermen for dinner.

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The rustling of palm trees and light crashing of waves rocked me to sleep.

Chartering a private sailboat

Bazaruto Island, Mozambique

My plan today had been to join a 3-day dhow safari with SailAway which would take me to the offshore Bazaruto Archipelago, a chain of five nationally protected islands off of the coast. Because of a high income-low impact development approach to tourism, the accommodation options on the islands are limited and quite expensive. SailAway provided an alternative — an opportunity to visit them aboard a dhow, a traditional sailboat, while camping out.

This morning, David, who runs SailAway told me that the group of three other guests that were to join the trip had their passports stolen and would now be unable to go. “I’m not going to cancel the trip,” he said. “The boat is yours.” The bad luck of others had become my good fortune; I’d have the dhow at my disposal, along with the three-man crew.

The captain, Manuel, led me down to the vessel — and while it certainly wasn’t luxurious, it was comfortable. There was a place to store my bags in the front, benches running along the sides, coolers for the food and water and a firebox for cooking in the back.

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The cook, also named Manuel, used some charcoal to get a fire started and put a kettle on while my guide, Dumas, talked me through our itinerary.

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With the sails up, we headed north for our first stop, Bazaruto Island. It was a scenic trip out there with dolphins following alongside the boat. We even spotted a dugong, this cool sea mammal unique to the area. The island itself felt completely deserted; on our beach, there was no other sign of life except some sand crabs.

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There was a tremendous dune further down the beach. From the top were views out to sea as well as the lush inland.

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After lunch back on the boat, we made our way to Two Mile Reef, which has the best snorkeling and diving in the area. Somehow, there wasn’t a single other boat or person there. Below water, colorful schools of fish darted among the coral, eels lurked in crevices and a gigantic sea turtle searched for food. My camera didn’t come down, so here’s a boring photo of the reef from the boat.

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With the sun starting to lower in the sky and our first day coming to an end, the sails were raised and we made our way to camp.

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Manuel grilled some freshly caught paragosan fish for dinner. We had a couple of beers around the campfire before heading to bed.

Flying into the Bazaruto Archipelago

Vilanculos, Mozambique

This morning, it was back to OR Tambo International Airport for the final leg of my month-long trip through Africa. My destination was Vilanculos, Mozambique, a small beach-side town on the Indian Ocean coast.

There’s one daily direct flight on Pelican Air, which is the only commercial carrier allowed to fly here. Unsurprisingly, the cost of airfare is through the roof; the only other option though is to fly through the capital of Maputo and then slog the final 9 hours by bus. Better to just eat the cost.

It was an ATR 42 propeller with a capacity of 48 passengers. All together, there were only 8 of us on board though, giving plenty of room to stretch out. Strangely enough, a UNC undergrad was sitting in front of me. He was spending the summer teaching English in Vilanculos. Small world.

The approach into the airport brought us over a vast and brilliant stretch of shimmering water, the colors of which ran the spectrum of every shade of blue and green. White sand barges occasionally dotted the ocean.

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After paying the $3USD entry tax (this, in addition to the $40USD visa) and having my bags searched again, my hotel transfer via pickup truck to Pescador Guesthouse was waiting for me.

We drove through town, which was bustling with activity but still showing signs of recovery from the cyclone that hit in 2007. Entire stretches of road have yet to be rebuilt (nor will they ever it seems) and fallen trees are stacked high.

Pescador was right off of the sand road and completely empty. It’s a small place to begin with — just six rooms — but had a staff waiting at attention upon my arrival. The manager, Nathalie, offered me their king room with a gigantic bed and views of the beach and water.

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The afternoon was spent relaxing at the pool, soaking in the perfect sunny weather and enjoying a place all to myself.

An African bacon cheeseburger

Johannesburg, South Africa

There are only a couple of flights out of Victoria Falls each day.

We left plenty of time this morning to get to the airport, check-in and make sure there wasn’t any possibility of missing ours. Right on time, a British Airways flight arrived from Johannesburg, was refueled and turned around.

Wheels were up on time, a little after 1:30 p.m., for our 2-hour flight. Picking up my backpack from the carousel, it was immediately obvious that some Zimbabwean baggage handler at Vic Falls Airport had gone searching for treasure. The straps were all undone and my lock was broken; a quick check didn’t reveal anything missing. From past experience, I’ve learned not to pack anything but clothing underneath the plane — it prevents theft and minimizes disruption in case of lost luggage. This incident only means that I’ll continue to do so.

The shuttle bus to my airport hotel, the Southern Sun, was waiting just outside of the terminal. Since my flight to Mozambique is tomorrow morning, it seemed to make more sense to overnight close by, especially since Johannesburg city center is a bit far from the airport.

My room on the fifth floor overlooked a parking lot, but was clean, quiet and had a huge bed and nice rain shower.

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The Internet access was extra (seriously?) but worth it. The afternoon and evening was spent sitting in my bathrobe, watching BBC, firing off e-mails and eating a gigantic bacon cheeseburger — the best I’ve had on this continent.

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My flight to Vilanculos, Mozambique departs tomorrow at 10:20 a.m.

Today’s forecast: Torrential rain

Livingstone, Zambia

The group split up this morning — some went canoing, others horse back riding; some did nothing nothing at all. A couple of us opted to make our way to Zambia for a different perspective of the falls.

Near the border, we passed a couple of elephants and several baboons without second thought. It’s amazing how a couple of weeks in Africa will make you immune to such occurrences. (I’d compare it to “temple fatigue” in Asia.) Several local people accosted us to sell old currency; a few others approached asking if we had any old shoes, socks or t-shirts. “Need clothing,” they said. How terrible this place has become.

Walking by some construction workers (with an 8:1 watching to working ratio), we stamped out of Zimbabwe and crossed the bridge that straddles the border. About halfway across, one of our buddies signed up for a bungee jump. Not for me.

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A one-day visa for Zambia was $20USD; from the border it was only a couple of minutes to the park entrance. And because the falls are actually located on the Zam side, the trails brought us right to the edge.

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After, we put on our rain gear for the walk to Livingstone Island, which sits just a few hundred feet from the falls. The bridge was barely visible as a torrential downpour completely soaked us.

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We left the park and stamped out of Zambia — thus marking what might have been my shortest stay ever in a country. Lunch back in Zim was at a fast food place; my chicken sandwich, small fries and Diet Coke was $9USD. Prices have skyrocketed here due to food shortages.

Back at the lodge, we got $20USD hour-long Swedish massages, checked the Internet and braved a temporary (yet commonplace) blackout. As the sun set, we piled into the back of a pick-up truck for a ride to the Victoria Falls Hotel, the classiest place in town, if not the country.

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The terrace overlooked the falls; drinks were surprisingly reasonable, just $2 for beers and $5 for mixed. After checking out the menu, we were on board for dinner also. The Zimbabwe beef, cooked medium, was served with a mushroom sauce, some mixed vegetables and chips.

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It was either delicious or my first red meat in 8 days.

The “Smoke that Thunders”

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

We started this morning at 6 a.m. with a freezing cold game drive into Chobe National Park. After such an amazing viewing experience by water yesterday, we had high expectations for what wildlife we might spot on land. And very quickly, they were met.

Just inside the gates was a pack of wild dogs. We spent a couple of minutes watching them hunting for breakfast before moving on. About 20 minutes later we returned to see them feasting on an impala.

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Next were the usual suspects: hippos, baboons, springbok and a fish eagle hunting prey off in the distance.

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Our biggest find was several African buffalo, which, up until this point, have eluded us. They are also some of the most dangerous animals to see in the wild. We got within 15 feet. And then, on our way out of the park, we spotted several hyena — half cats, half bears; just weird looking.

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We left Kasane and traveled about 20 minutes to the Kazangula Road border crossing into Zimbabwe. Our visas were $30USD; the cash was simply thrown into the drawer by an immigration official. Who knows where it ended up?

It was only another 80 kilometers or so to the town of Victoria Falls. We checked into Savanna Lodge and then made our way to the famous falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Upon seeing Victoria Falls in 1855, Dr. David Livingstone wrote in his journal: “On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed.” That could be an understatement. With the rainy season having just ended, there were between 8-9 million liters of water pouring over the edge every second. It was simply awe-inspiring — and wet.

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The falls have the scenic backdrop of Iguazu and the amazing power of Niagara. It’s not hard to understand why Livingstone was so choked for words and why they remain one of Africa’s largest tourist attractions. Yet, the park was surprisingly quiet, which might have been more an indication of tourists’ unease about visiting Zimbabwe than the falls themselves.

The situation here is actually quite sad. Due to the notorious hyper-inflation, Zim has abandoned its currency and now accepts U.S. dollars, Euros, South African rand, Botswana pula — essentially anything but its own. On the street, young men try to sell souvenir 100 Trillion dollar notes — today, they’re not even worth the paper they’re printed on — by advertising “the worst inflation in the world.”

Once back, we only had a half hour to shower and change before departing for our sunset boat cruise on the Zambezi. It was one of those all-you-can-drink packages so we all enjoyed ourselves as the sky wowed us once again.

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Arriving back at shore, we posed for one last group photo.

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Dinner was at another backpacker lodge, Shoestring, which served up some tasty pizzas. Incredibly, the kitchen ran out of flour — which shows just how scarce basic food items have become here. The former “bread basket of Africa” no longer has any bread.

We stayed out late, celebrating the end of our 1,800-kilometer trip.

Cruise in Chobe National Park

Kasane, Botswana

We were on the road by 7 a.m. this morning for our 400 kilometer drive northeast to Kasane. Compared to Namibia, the roads in Botswana have been in surprisingly good shape — although that quickly changed once we hit the so-called Elephant Highway. This highway has been named because of the frequent and close animal sightings. But given the pockmarked road and potholes the size of elephants, it might as well have been named because of its lousy condition.

After refueling and stocking up on essentials in Kasane (and laughing as a warthog searched aimlessly for food in the parking lot), we set up camp inside the electrified fence of Thebe River. The fence was for good reason; nearby Chobe National Park, which is the second largest national park in Botswana, has one of the highest concentrations of game on the African continent.

Thor dropped us off on the banks of the Chobe River where we boarded a pontoon boat, sat back and were taken into the national park for an afternoon river safari.

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And almost immediately, the animals appeared, including crocodiles, monkeys and several types of antelopes.

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We also got a chance to get a closer look at the hippos — which we had to keep a safer distance from when traveling with mokoros in the Delta.

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The star attraction, however, was the Chobe Elephant. These elephants comprise what is probably the largest surviving continuous elephant population on the planet, covering northern Botswana and northwestern Zimbabwe. The Chobe Elephants are some of, if not the, largest elephants in the world and their numbers are currently estimated at 120,000. As we navigated the river, dozens of them lined the shores while others ventured into the water, snacking on grass and allowing us to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent beasts.

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The “sundowner” is a rite of passage here in Africa. Everyday, like clockwork, locals and tourists alike gather to watch the sun lower into the sky in a dazzling display of color and light. Sundowners are best enjoyed with a cold beer or cocktail in hand. And today was no exception.

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For me, this afternoon’s activity was the highlight of my time in Botswana. Relaxing on the slow winding Chobe River, coming within feet of the massive African elephants, experiencing another spectacular sunset — all with a cold Windhoek Lager in hand.

It honestly doesn’t get much better than this.

Vomit rocket over the Delta

Gweta, Botswana

We saw another family of giraffes as well as an elephant on this morning’s wildlife walk. The timidity of the former and dangerousness of the latter prevented us from getting closer than a couple of hundred feet though.

Back at camp, everything was packed up and we loaded the mokoros with our gear. It was a relaxing ride to our 4×4 transfer; we snoozed most of the way. The hot water showers at Sitatunga were much welcomed; just as quickly as we arrived, we were leaving again though, this time for Maun’s airport.

Twelve of us had signed up for a scenic flight over the Delta with Mack Air. On the tarmac, we hopped into a Gippsland GA8 Airvan. It was a tiny seven seater. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

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The first half hour of the flight was fantastic. From just 500 feet high, we spotted herds of elephants bathing at water holes and hippos lazing around.

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From above, we were also able to get a real sense of just how large this flood plain is — literally, for as far as the eye could see.

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But then suddenly, a wave of nausea. A large lunch, bumpy ride, confined space, baking sun and eye glued to my camera hit me like a ton of bricks. Sweat started pouring down my back and my fingers tingled. “Are you okay?” my seat mate asked. Barf bag in hand, I whispered, “No.”

Ten minutes later, music to my ears. “I can see the airport,” she said. I’d be able to keep it together for that much longer — but barely.

Back in the truck it was a 200 kilometer drive east to Gweta. We passed through the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, the remains of what was once one of the largest lakes in Southern Africa. Today, it’s the largest salt dry flat in the world.

When we saw the giant anteater, we knew we had arrived at Planet Baobab, a quirky campsite and hotel midway between Maun and Kasane.

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Planet Baobab is named for the gigantic baobab trees that line the property. The average age of these beasts is 4,000 years old. Given the two-night bush camping experience and my unhappy scenic flight experience, it seemed only fair to upgrade myself to a room. The hut had an en suite bathroom and comfortable bed. It would be nice to sleep without a sleeping bag.

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We had a chicken stew back at the camp before heading to Baobab’s funky “Afro-centric” bar. It was nicely decorated and served up ice cold beers at a pretty reasonable price. After a slight disagreement with our tour leader over the wake-up time, we returned to our hut for bed.

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It’s safe to say the sheets felt like 600 thread count.

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