Friday, 25 May 2007

Tanzania: tailors, tea and trains

Another pretty early start, not helped by trying to pack a pile of wet laundry! At least today's dawned fine, and windy so our tent has a chance to dry off.

We plan to get to Mbeya today - not so far away, but things are always difficult to time when a border's involved. We walk down the road a km or so to the bus stop, and find one waiting for us - a very good sign indeed. It's only about 90km to the border and we are there in just over an hour. The paperwork is straightforward enough when leaving though the Malawian officials were very interested in how much money we'd spent (bugger all!), and our occupations and employers. A bit more effort is usually required when entering a country and Tanzania is no exception. It's also the first time we've had to buy a visa in a while - and at $US50 each, it's not cheap, but it is for 3 months and allows multiple entries into Tanzania from its East Africa neighbours (Kenya & Uganda). We have now officially left Southern Africa, and it feels like it. Tanzania is hilly and green, and at a high enough altitude to grow tea and coffee. The views from our minibus window are spectacular - craggy hills, terraced fields and lots of people. We are seeing larger villages than we have for a long time - Botswana, Malawi and Zambia were full of small settlements, quite different to here. For some reason our minibus stops at an indeterminate point en route to Mbeya and we are all sold onto a larger bus. It doesn't matter to us much, but it's just another slightly quirky thing about travelling here. We slowly (which I think is good) make our way into town. It's raining really heavily now, and has actually got quite cold. I'm a bit worried that I'm beginning to acclimatise to hot tropical temperatures, and find anything below 20 a bit hard to tolerate.

Mbeya, when we finally get there, seems to have little to recommend it, apart from the countryside around it. It's busy, has the first professional beggars we've seen since South Africa, and seems just a bit edgy and uncomfortable. It is a city of tailors - men sitting at old fashioned sewing machines on shop verandahs.

We are duly snaffled at the bus depot and taken over the road to a typical hotel with an unpronounceable name - I need to work on my Swahili I can see.

The next morning we head out in search of a) a bank so we can get some money; b) breakfast; and c) the train station so we can book our tickets to Dar (that's how us seasoned travellers refer to Dar es Salaam!!). All accomplished relatively easily - it's chapatis and eggs for brekky, so our diet seems about to change as well; we have left behind the world of muesli, fruit and yoghurt for good I think.

The train doesn't leave till 2.30 on Saturday, so on Saturday morning, we have arranged to visit a tea plantation. We are met by our "guide" at 6.30am (our first mistake...) put on a local bus and then spend the next two hours retracing the road towards the Malawi border, with the weather deteriorating as we drive up into the hills. There's a one hour stop for no particular reason along the way (the perfect opportunity to eat more chapatis and drink chai), and then we are dropped off at a plantation and spend an hour or so walking around it in the rain. This is fun (not). Max persuades me to join a picker among the plants, and it's then that I realise why they all wear heavy plastic aprons - these tea plants are home to a particularly nasty kind of biting ant, and I spend the next half hour trying to get rid of them. Then, to finish off all this fun, it's another two hours on a crowded minibus, back to Mbeya. Just as well we got some good photos...

I´m neither dressed for tea picking, nor in possession of suitably nimble fingers.

Luckily the weather's improved back in town, and we head off to the station as instructed by the booking clerk, by 1pm. While the train doesn't actually arrive till about 3.45, we are assured this is virtually on time. We are booked in neighbouring compartments because of some peculiar Tazara rule that won't allow men and women to sleep together if they are strangers - this means that the other three women in my compartment are frequently visited by their menfolk, as all this rule seems to do is separate travelling families. This means we find our natural home together in the bar - and by 4.30 are happily sitting in the afternoon sunshine, drinking Safari lager, and watching the spectacular Tanzanian countryside roll by. There is a nasty moment, a big jolt, early on in the journey, and we see a large and very dead pig on the side of the line, with an angry farmer alongside. In spite of the fact that I'm on a top bunk, and have wedged myself against the wall with the Tazara-supplied rugs (just in case we hit another pig in the night), I sleep pretty well - but we get up early as the train goes through a number of national parks and game reserves in the morning. We don't see too many animals, but the scenery is now truly spectacular - there are mountain ranges, and real jungle, as well as lots of villages.

A cold beer, a slow train, and pretty countryside, bliss I´d say.
Dar, on a Sunday anyway, is pretty quiet. It reminds me of Singapore of 20 years ago, or perhaps contemporary Kathmandu - low rise, ramshackle, a bit of faded colonial charm, lots of business on the streets - but with mosques, in fact our hotel is on Mosque St - that should be quiet!! We decided to treat ourselves to a good Sunday lunch, and eat delicious curry and fruit salad, and coffee - no beer in this part of the world, we will have to wait for Zanzibar.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Malawi and the Lake

Our first Malawian destination is Lilongwe, the capital. We taxi the 25km from Chipata to the border and then get another taxi ride for the 12km or so to the bus depot. The price for the bus from there to Lilongwe, a trip of around 120km, gives us our first insight into how cheap Malawi is - it's around $3.50NZ each. A sign of things to come as our campsite in Lilongwe costs just over $NZ8.
Like Lusaka, Lilongwe has very little to recommend it - it seems a little odd to me that these capital cities have absolutely no "must see" cultural or national attractions, so become merely useful stopovers for us as they have banks, post offices, internet cafes, good coffee and bookshops.
Lilongwe will go down in our travels as the end of our trusty "spider" tent. It's been a faithful companion, but at Flat Dogs the troublesome pole broke again, and our repairs in Lilongwe are not really up to it. We ask if there's a camping store in town, and the ubiquitous Shoprite is recommended. We splash out on a $50 tent - just as the cost of accommodation is plummeting! Still, it's always good to know you have a roof over your head.

In Zambia our beer of choice was Mosi (aka the Beer that Thunders), but in Malawi it's the beautifully named Kuche Kuche - a bargain at 70c for 500ml bottles. It helps to while away the evening in the dark - yep, the power's gone off here, just like it did in Chipata last night.

After a pretty relaxing afternoon and evening in Lilongwe, we have another fairly long day in a bus. The trip to Monkey Bay starts with us fronting up for the bus at 8am (as advised by various blokes at the depot yesterday), to be taken to another depot and dropped off. The Monkey Bay bus we're assured will be here at 8.30, and sure enough it is. Nothing much else happens for a couple of hours, except that it slowly fills up. When we finally move, it is to go back to our original depot to fill up with diesel, except that they're out, so it's round to the local filling station. Everyone else in the bus (seems like about a hundred people) takes the opportunity to get off and sit under the trees while this happens, so it turns into a 40 minute exercise to get everyone back on board again. The inside of this bus is not so crowded, but the roof is packed with mysterious packages, some of which fall victim to the bumpy road later in the journey. The distance to Monkey Bay is round 200km, and the trip takes over 5 hours - the roads are pretty bad and there are a lot of stops, each one taking some time as it's quite a business to reunite people with their luggage.
We get to Monkey Bay round 5.30, just as dusk is falling. The Ziwade Guest House is not exactly a thing of beauty, but it's near the bus and the ferry, and for $4 for a room, we can't really complain. A couple of locals escort us to their aunty's restaurant, where we eat local fish (chambo - not to be confused with chamba, which is dope), tomatoes and rice. I think we will be eating a lot of this as we go.

We are pretty excited about the ferry; we've heard good things and seen some great photos of the Mozambican ports that it stops at. The Ilala is around 60 years old and a real institution on the lake. It goes up and down every week, loaded with people, and at this time of the year (harvest time) produce for the islands as well.

Loading up the Ilala early in the morning at Monkey Bay.
The sight of the boat loading at the docks is really colourful, but we are pleased we have splashed out on a cabin for the journey (at the fairly steep cost of NZ$130 each). It's tiny, but shipshape with two neat beds, a desk, mirror, fan and a basin with hot and cold water. Really, what else could you need. Life downstairs on the second class deck is a different story. There are only hard benches to sit on and for a 45 hour journey, it would be tough going indeed. Upstairs we are in complete luxury. Our deck has a bar, a large sunshaded area with cane chairs, and really reminds us of a forgotten colonial time. I get into the spirit of things and try Malawi Gin as the sun goes down - it's really OK, and has to help with the mosquitoes.

Chilling out on the first-class deck of the Ilala - the perfect place to watch a perfect sunset.

Our first port stop of note is Mezangulu, in Mozambique. It's a lovely sight - a hilly green spot, crowded with people and packages waiting to board. The lifeboats are lowered and used to ferry people to and from the shore - no jetties here. It's tomato season, and there are huge cane baskets of them being unloaded, together with those mysterious cloth and plastic-wrapped packages that accompany travellers all over this continent. It's a lively and colourful scene along the waterfront - the Mozambique flag flying, a couple of customs/immigration officers, and a small crowd gathered in the shade of the trees. Further down, almost oblivious to our arrival, are the ubiquitous sights of Lake Malawi - women washing clothes, fishermen with their nets, and bathers and kids having fun in the water.

We stop every few hours during the day. One stop is notable for a long sandy beach, another for a glimpse of mouldering Portuguese fortifications and a church tower. It speaks of a muddled history, but for the mzungus (that's the lingua franca for us Europeans - not sure it's altogether polite, but we hear it all the time) on the boat, makes for stunning photos in the late afternoon sun. My two favourite hours of each day are from 4 till 6. The heat goes out of the sun, the light softens and it's time to relax with a drink, reflect on the day and look forward to the sunset and dinner.

Likoma Island (famous in this part of the world) is our last day time stop. Quite a few of the dozen or so Europeans on board get off here, and rather laboriously an ambulance is loaded on. It's going to Nkhata Bay (our stop) for repairs we are told. The locals seem to be using our boat as their Saturday night public bar, and our deck is fuller than it's been before. No worries, we are happily esconsed in a corner, with a Kuche Kuche, listening to the FA Cup final, being broadcast live on Radio Malawi - thanks to the radio engineer on board who has found it for me on our radio. We smile when an African player, Didier Drogba, scores the winning goal for Chelsea.

Nkhata Bay is a tiny spot, but drop dead gorgeous. Our accommodation is on the basic side, but again really cheap - $7 for a reed and thatch hut, with two beds and mosquito nets. The loos are a bit of a hike away, and I think I would rather swim in the lake than use the showers...but hey, it is Africa after all. We ended up spending just a couple of lazy days here, "befriended" by a few local lads who spent some time teaching us a local variation of backgammon, and then trying to sell us a set. The boys have great names, Edward, Benson, Jonas - the products of God-fearing parents I suspect. There is a lot of God here; we saw a very energetic preacher from the ferry, leaping about and with lots of hallelujahs and amens from his two cohorts. The lower deck was fortunately the recipient of his words, I'm not so sure they would have been so well received on the upper deck. Solomon took us for a few hour walk into the hills at the back of the bay - lots of villages and a great mountain biking trail it seemed to us. He pointed out clouds of what looked like smoke on the lake and explained that it was swarms of flies - must have been millions of them. The locals apparently catch them and eat them in patties - a bit of a local specialty, but one we never had the opportunity to try.

They love their football in Africa, and will play anywhere. This is on the hills above Nkhata Bay - not a shoe in sight, let alone a football boot, but the game was being played seriously and with relish.
Our last stop on the lake was further north, at Chitimba Beach Camp. We had met Ed, the Dutch guy who is running this camp while we were in Lilongwe - he was in the capital to do some business and staying at the same campground as we were. The bus trip was a two fold affair - a minibus to Mzuzu, just 50km or so away, and then a larger bus from bustling Mzuzu to the beach turnoff. We arrived at the depot in Mzuzu, and once they knew our destination our bags were swiftly packed onto the next bus, and we had time to wander around, buy samosas for lunch (quite a local delicacy, and really delicious - a tastier option than hard boiled eggs, which are pretty much the only alternative), and go to the post office. We have found the people in Malawi incredibly helpful and gentle, there seems to be no malice or bad intentions from anyone towards us.

The trip to Chitimba took around 3 hours, and was notable for the number of road blocks - police or military (it's a bit hard for us to tell) man these, and all vehicles must stop and be inspected. Usually it only takes a couple of minutes, but occasionally there's a fuss about something - generally it's a local's luggage - that means we all get off and have to present our IDs and indicate whose luggage is whose. As we get closer to the borders, they become more frequent.

We hiked down the road to the campsite and decided to try out the Shoprite Bush Baby (aka the new tent). It all seems OK, but the fly looks like it belongs to another tent - still while the weather's so good, it doesn't matter too much. Before long, we've had a swim, and are happily sitting at the bar with a Kuche Kuche and a book watching another day come to a close.
Livingstonia is a 15km or so hike away, and we get an early start the next morning to walk as far as we can before it gets too hot. Livingstonia is quite an anacronism in this part of the world - a town founded by Scottish missionaries, named after our friend the Doctor, and home to a university, hospital, technical college, museum and Presbyterian church. More attractions in this hilltop village than we have come across in the last two capital cities we've visited. The walk is quite tough, the road goes up in a series of numbered hairpins (20 of them), and we can cut out the apex of the hairpins by taking "shortcuts" - ie, steep rutted tracks. I puff and sweat my way up, avoiding numerous locals skipping down with babies on their backs and loads on their heads! The views as we climb are fantastic; we can see all the bays of the lake and also look out across the rolling hills and the escarpment. There's a national park at the back of the village, and it really is lovely up here - and also a bit cooler. As we approach the village, hiking along a track that takes us through village fields, we can see the planted pine plantations - the whole effect is green and pleasant indeed. We make our way to the museum, which has been written up as a must see, but in fact is quite an odd collection of photocopied documents and photographs, and paraphernalia from colonial days. There's a butterfly collection in an old writing desk, which is lined with scraps of old newspapers - one of the headlines reads New Zealand election undecided, and dates back to 1978. Kind of a weird thing to come across so far from home.
We have come prepared to stay the night, but now think we will walk back down - till we spot an entourage having lunch at the guest house behind the museum, with space in their car. Not only do we gatecrash their lunch, we also get a lift back to the main road, and are back in the campsite in time to do our laundry and have a swim before dinner. A good day - but one that's not yet over. A couple of overland trucks have arrived while we've been walking, and one of the guys has organised a truck to come and collect anyone who's interested later in the evening, to take us to the next town to watch the final of the Champions League between Liverpool and AC Milan. A great idea - well that's how it seems. We all pile on the back of the truck and set off in the dark ... the TV is in a small concrete bunker 20km or so away, with rows of wooden planks for seats. There are loads of locals all squished into this small hot room, together with around 20 of us from the campsite. Beers are sent for and delivered from the bar next door, and the game starts. All is well until about 10 minutes into the second half when the satellite connection is lost, presumably due to atmospheric conditions. And then it starts to rain...African style...for about an hour. The ride back is wet and cold, and our laundry which had been drying nicely on the trees is all over the place. We retrieve it in the dark and then nervously open the tent - just how does a $50 tent cope with a torrential downpour. Well, not too badly actually. We are pleasantly surprised that it's mostly dry inside, and end up sleeping OK.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

South Luangwe

We now have a series of bus trips to get ourselves up to Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and then out to Mfuwe, the entry village to South Luangwe National Park, our next destination.

The first trip is from Livingston to Lusaka, courtesy of the Mazhandu Family Bus Service. This included a reservation service, a seat number and a departure (and arrival!) time, which were largely adhered to, giving us completely false expectations about future bus travels in Zambia. Lusaka was pretty much a "pass through" for us, though we did have the chance to take Petr (the Czech guy who rescued us in Nata) and his girlfriend Renata out for a beer one night; and also spent another evening chatting to Gunter, a Swiss guy who had cycled from Switzerland - no mean feat.

The next lap was to travel from Lusaka to Chipata, a long leg of around 550km. Khondwani Travel and Tours didn't take bookings, and were very vague about departure times, though they were adamant that the trip would take six hours. As a result we were at their depot round 7, eventually leaving round 9am. You can't leave till the bus is full (read, very full) which includes people sitting in the aisles on their luggage. The drivers drive quite slowly and carefully - not sure whether this is because they are cautious by nature, aware of the consequences of not driving carefully, or merely required to because of the shocking state of the roads; maybe a combination of all of these. Six hours turned into around nine, and darkness fell. After about eight hours we began to wonder whether we'd gone past Chipata, and had left our bags sitting out on the road somewhere waiting for us. All nonsense, but it's quite disorienting driving along in the dark at the back of a big bus without an idea of where you are. However, of course, as soon as I laboriously made my way to the front of the bus to ask the driver how far Chipata was, we were virtually there. Managed to get a taxi from the depot to Dean's Hill View Lodge - a nice and new place run by ... Dean! The evening (what was left of it) passed pleasantly enough, cooking another version of rice and tuna, and chatting with Dean, who left England a few years back and after dabbling in farming and running a nightclub in Chipata, has decided that tourist accommodation is his thing.
The final leg takes us to the village of Mfuwe. Back to the trusty bus depot - this time not till 9am (we are slowly getting wiser!) - and onto a mini bus. We were all settled and ready to go round 10am, but nothing much happened till 12.30, when we drove round the corner to get some diesel. About 1 we were finally off - but this drive was probably one of the most scenic we have had. The countryside has been very flat since the Naukluft mountains in Namibia, but now we were driving over small hills, with larger escarpments in the distance. The countryside here is still very green from the rains, and there are numerous small villages with buildings of grass and thatch roofs, mud bricks, square and round. Some have corrugated iron roofs held down with rocks and some of the more substantial buildings have decramastic roof tiles (yes, from NZ), and even solar power panels. There are fields of sunflowers, maize and cotton, and sometimes just long grass. Our bus leaves the main road to drop people down dusty lanes, and one man returns to the bus to proudly show us his year-old twins - his other five children standing shyly behind him. We all agree "it's probably best to have a rest now"!! At the end of the line, with the bus now empty, our driver and the bus owner, who appears from somewhere, take us the last couple of km to Flat Dogs campsite. It's been a really nice experience, and we are pleased also to be at the camp, having read all about it. The sun is setting over the river as we put up our tent and there are elephants on the other bank. All is well with the world.

There are a couple of nightwatchmen in the camp, with very strong torches but little else to protect us against marauding elephants and hippos. There are no fences here, and after dark one of them takes us the 20 metres or so to the bank, and shows us the hippos grazing. They look like cows - big, dangerous cows - out of the water. At night we can hear them snuffling and snorting all around us. Sounds carry I know, but they sound awfully close. It's kind of exciting, and kind of terrifying, but I sleep soundly enough till Max wakes me up at sunrise (before 6am in this part of the world) to show me the elephant walking past our tent. Yep, we're in Africa.

We do our first night drive this night, and are both determined that this is when we will finally see the elusive Pantherus Pardus (aka the Leopard). It's a great experience, starting at 4pm and finishing after 8, so a couple of hours in daylight and a couple in the pitch black African night, with a wee beer break in between - very civilised. During the night section we see a number of nocturnal creatures we haven't seen before, including a couple of genet (pretty, cat-like creatures) a civet, shrews, and scrub hares, together with lots more hippo and a lion, with a limp who stumbled in the sand occasionally as he ambled away from us. We didn't see a leopard, but did really enjoy the outing, and decided to do it again the next night...and yes, finally a leopard sighting. They are fantastic creatures, and this one was hiding behind a log watching as a couple of zebra walked past. He let them go (don't know why, they looked delicious!), and then focussed his attention on a puku (a kind of fat impala). It was dark while we were watching and there are pretty strict rules about how much light the tours are allowed to shed on a hunting scene, but we did see him slinking through the grass ever so slowly getting closer and closer to the blissfully ignorant puku. After about 20 minutes though, another puku raised the alarm - a loud gurgling hissing sound - and it was all over. Still we'd had a great sighting and can now relax - the Big Five have been ticked off!

One of south Luangwe´s highlights was seeing this baby giraffe shortly after it was born.

The park also has this lake full of Nile Cabbage, and hippos.
The next day we rather reluctantly depart Flat Dogs. It would be good to stay another night, but we have to get to Monkey Bay in Malawi by Thursday evening to catch the once-a-week ferry on Friday. The camp takes us back to Mfuwe about 2pm, when we've heard through the grapevine that the bus to Chipata leaves. As soon as we arrive we are set upon by a couple of blokes who point to a car and assure us "you will take this car". Having been told of the cost for a taxi we reply "I don't think so...", but actually they know best. It's a shared taxi, and we get seats for the same price as the bus. The ride is immeasurably more comfortable and quicker too, and we are back in Chipata before dark. We decide to stay somewhere close to the supermarket, and end up at Larissa's Guest House - which really ought to be called Larissa's Local Bar as that's what most of the business is. They seemed really quite surprised to have a couple of guests for the evening. Nevertheless, they make us welcome, and let us use the house kitchen to cook - and do the washing up for us. The bar is really rocking and we join in carefully, drinking our last Zambian kwacha, leaving just enough for the taxi to the border.

We chat the next morning with the Indian lady owner, Afuzi, who was born a Moslem but converted to Catholicism to marry. She is impressed with Max's Catholic credentials; less so with mine!

Crossing ze Zambezi

A new week, and a new country. Today we set out to travel to Livingston, Zambia, and twin home to the Victoria Falls, together with the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We've heard that once you cross the Zambezi you are really in Africa, and today is that day.
Shortly after 9am we are waiting hopefully on the road outside the campsite for a ride - sure enough yet another government vehicle does the trick, with Richard who seems to buy and sell vehicles in the region for the various government departments and agencies. He has a jacket on with BGP on it - just like the one the camp cleaner was wearing this morning. I thought it must stand for Botswana Game Parks, but no, Richard proudly tells me it means Botswana Government Property. There you go!

Richard turns out to be a good bloke, and able to swing things with emigration and customs to drive us virtually onto the Kazungula car ferry, saving us about a 700m walk so all good. We dash on as it's about to go, with its load of one semi-trailer, a few local pedestrians (who travel for free), and ourselves. A rather dodgy looking character corners us on the short crossing, teeing us up for money changing and also a taxi. We change a small amount of Pula (getting a mere 55,000 Zambian kwacha - these zeroes will prove a challenge to me I know), enough for the taxi fare to Livingston, and soon are squished into yet another nameless Japanese import with far too many other people, for the couple of hour drive to town. The border area is absolutely littered with insurance sellers, semi-trailers and their drivers, who must have to wait days at times, and the usual array of air-time sellers, produce stalls and trinkets. It's much more like it than the Botswana border we arrived at.

The next day we head to Vic Falls, one of Africa's great sights. We are here a few months after the really heavy rains (which fell Jan/Feb), but the Zambezi is higher than it's been for 20 years, so the views are a bit compromised by all the spray. However, we have the best day wandering around the various paths, getting drenched, drying off, and then doing a short hike down a gully to view the Falls from river level, and walking round close to the Zim border.

“Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”, apparently said Dr Livingstone. The Falls are known as Mosi Oa Tunya in the local language, which translates as smoke that thunders.

Probably the best view we have though is early the following morning, from a microlight. I'd never been on one before, and it was a fantastic experience. Great to see the Falls from above, to appreciate the geology of the region and how the river is slowly changing the face of the Falls, and also to see elephants and hippos on the small islands in the middle of the Zambezi.

Max preparing for his microlight flight.
We have noticed in Zambia a more visible Indian population than we've seen since Cape Town, and also more Moslem influence - not sure what Dr Livingstone would think of this!

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Chobe National Park

We took a day off to recover from the tough mokoro trip, and then gathered ourselves for the trip up to Kasane, the entry point to Chobe National Park - home to large herds of elephants. I'm sure our departure was much to the relief of the Crocodile Camp people, who must have been wondering whether we would ever leave, as we were still enjoying our "bungalow for the price of a campsite" upgrade.
The combi to town was straightforward, and we found that the bus to Nata left in a few minutes - just enough time to dash into the local Spar (a supermarket chain we have become quite fond of) for a loaf of bread to sustain us. No need really, we were squashed into the bus so tight we could barely breathe, let alone move our arms to make a sandwich. Good thing the trip was only four hours...
Max ended up chatting with a bloke who, it turned out, sat next to him on the bus from Shakawe a few days earlier. He was really keen to get hold of the book Max was reading ("Affluenza" by Oliver James), and since I'd virtually finished it, we gave it to him. He was delighted, and so was I as it's another half a kilo out of my pack.
Nata turned out to be nothing more than a dusty intersection with three competing filling stations (as they're known in this part of the world). We ascertained that the "connecting" bus to Kasane comes through early each morning, is usually full as it departs from Francistown about 100km away, and didn't actually eventuate today. Hmm, not such good news - it also accounted for the large number of locals attempting to hitch a ride. We're not so good with local competition for rides, they definitely have the edge on us. However, we determinedly stood out on the road with the rest of them, vainly waving our hands at every passing vehicle. Nothing stopped. People slowly drifted off to god knows where. We retreated to the shade of one of the filling station cafes and considered our options. Max did a reccy of the surrounding area, and found a satisfactory bit of lawn, and come darkness we erected our tent, trying to be low key and not attract attention. We will be, after all, a little vulnerable during the night. Someone called out to us in the darkness, "watch out for the drains, they've been leaking lately". Ah, thanks. So much for operating under cover of darkness. We were also running low on local currency (the Pula - which is also the Tswana word for "rain", a precious commodity around here), so ended up eating another round of sandwiches for dinner, and having an early night.
The next morning we were, not surprisingly, up and packed early, and cashed in some karma as we got a lift all the way to our campsite in Kasane with Petr. He was returning a rental van, empty apart from himself, after holidaying with friends. Peter is from the Czech Republic and lives in Zambia, and apart from the welcome lift, he also gave us loads of useful info. Before we know it, we were in yet another pleasant camping spot, Thebe River Camp, checking out another Botswana town, Kasane - quite a bit smaller than Maun, but with a Spar supermarket and an internet cafe (with loo!). Can't ask for much more really.
Enough about the logistics - now for the animals. Chobe is known for its herds of elephants, and I was still itching to see large groups of them, of all sizes, playing in the water. We booked for an early morning game drive and a late afternoon cruise the next day. The game drive was really very disappointing - we saw very little, I think maybe it's getting a bit cold early in the morning for the animals (and for me too actually). The outing was only saved by a lioness and her three almost grown cubs which we saw near the end of the drive, and then a "kill" someway off the road, but advertised by half a dozen vultures, a few jackals and a couple of African wild dogs.
The afternoon cruise though made up for any disappointment - we saw the large herds of elephants I'd been hoping to see, including quite small babies. They were drinking, swimming, playing in the mud and generally being very adorable and photogenic.
There were also a couple of large groups of hippos, and I'm not sure, but I think maybe I can say that I've now seen hippo sex. A lot of grunting and splashing anyway. On the way back we saw a couple of young bull elephants playing about in the islands in the middle of the river, as the sun set. They were obviously just young lads larking about, it was great to see them chasing each other around, oblivious to us (and probably to their mothers, who must have been getting worried about them being out after dark!).