Saturday, September 19, 2009

South Saturn Delta

Botswana is not an easy country to visit. The visa system is very restrictive and once you get into the country you realise the full extent to which they are dedicated to “high revenue – low impact” tourism. What this means is that unless you are willing to pay upwards of $300USD per night to sleep in a luxury lodge only accessible by air transfer then the Botswana government are not interested in you! Whilst this model has sound environmental strengths, less people means less pollution, overcrowding and threat to the wildlife I am not so sure about the social implications. Surely Botswanans will develop a skewed image of foreign tourists if the only ones they meet are the uber-rich? Rather amusing was the fact that after jumping through hoops to get a visa the border guard was about to absent-mindedly stamp Monika in without even checking her nationality! More frustrating was that the visa was valid only for 14 days, and this was reduced further to only 10 days by immigration. We had had to rush out of Zambia due to the conditions of both the Botswana and Namibia visas and now we encountered more restrictions!

In Kasane we realised the campsite we had booked did not exist but we found an alternative place tacked on to a luxury lodge full of holidaying South Africans. Kasane itself is a strange dusty town full of warthogs wandering the streets, holding up the fleets of 4x4’s. The town is still and silent, with no life from the locals. The markets are quiet and staid and when we wanted to do a boat trip into the Chobe national park we could not find anyone to take us. Anywhere else in Africa you would have people clambering over each other to offer you a tour of some sorts. We had to resort to visiting the tourism board for help finding a suitable boat!

It was worth the search however. The boat trips take place in the afternoon, just before sunset. We found a lodge with a small boat, only 12 seats, rather than the 56 seaters owned by the big lodges. This small boat was able to get us closer to the crocs and hippos than we wanted and to good views of elephants, buffalo, giraffe and even a sable antelope. The highlight for many people is viewing elephants crossing the river, something we witnessed just after sunset. An elephant population of over 120,000 in northern Botswana alone makes any boat cruise exciting.

Botswana is one of the few African success stories. Despite being neglected during the colonial era, only protected by the Brits to stop any incursions from either the Boers or the Germans (who had just arrived in Namibia). At independence in 1966 there was only one 12km paved road in the entire country. All of a sudden they found diamonds and the economy boomed. The real reason for the success (one of the highest GDP per capita in Africa and the fastest growing economy in the world since independence) is that the government did not spend the new found wealth on personal excess, there were no mansions being built, spending sprees abroad or limousines cruising through Gabarone. Other African nations should have taken note. At one point during this time the average lifespan even hit 70 in Botswana. Unfortunately nowadays this figure has dropped to below 30, a sad reflection of how AIDS has ravaged a country with a population of under 2 million, and even that number is shrinking according to some counts.

This small population is probably why there is barely any public transport infrastructure in Botswana. Hitch-hiking is considered the easiest way to get around and just outside each ‘town’ there will be a ‘hiking spot’ under a tree where potential travellers can wait for a lift. Getting away from the main centres is pretty much impossible, unless you are cheeky enough to approach some of the South African families in the campsites, which we weren’t!

We did manage to get a ride from Kasane to Nata where we waited a couple of hours over a plate of rice and beef stew before catching a Maun-bound bus and getting dropped off at Planet Baobab. An amazing lodge, known by all and worthy of its own bus stop in the middle of nowhere, staying at Planet Baobab is like camping in a fairy tale. The lodge is an exquisitely designed collection of huts around a pool, restaurant and bar with a campsite around the back, complete with open-air showers. It is situated right on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans. When we asked if we could walk to the pans the owner laughed (its 32km in blistering heat through lion-populated forest!) but kindly offered us a significant discount off of the tour rates. It was still expensive enough to take us all night to decide whether to go or not however! The tour consisted of a picnic ‘in the bush’, a game drive through herds of zebra and wildebeest and a trip on quad-bikes across the pans. Although we are not usually excited about this type of excursion it was a lot of fun, although I was slightly scared when Monika was driving as she spent the whole time cackling like a witch and imitating the sound of the engine! The highlight of the whole tour for me however was visiting a family of meerkats on our way home, such strange and inquisitive creatures we were able to get very close to them without distressing them at all.

Travelling through rural Zambia felt like travelling through a BBC documentary on Africa – the quintessential golden colours, plains dotted with baobab trees and mud huts and women walking to and fro with giant pales of water on their heads – the first time we have felt like that perhaps since we were in West Africa over two years ago! In contrast, travelling in Botswana the scenery is at best an image of an outback ghost town in Australia and at worst travelling in a post-apocalyptic world. The dusty, sparse landscape dotted with discarded car tyres and ugly tin shacks behind wire fences. There are barely any people around (Botswana ranks 228th out of 238 in the world by population density, beating countries such as Namibia, Mongolia, Iceland and Australia) and therefore the land feels lifeless. Even the dust is dull, more grey than red and like walking through a spillage of white pepper. The markets are small and few and far between and very sterile when compared with those in other African countries, it seems as if most people shop in the giant supermarkets found in the larger towns, of which there obviously are not many.

Finally we made it to Maun, the gateway to the famous Okavango Delta. Although we could not afford to fly into, let alone stay in, the Inner Delta we were able to take a two-day Mokoro trip along the Boro river in the Eastern Delta. The scenery here is probably more Norfolk Broads than classic Okavango Delta but it was quite pleasant meandering through the reeds in the mokoro (traditional canoe dug-out of sausage tree wood) being propelled by the poler standing at the back. We spotted the odd hippo and elephant during a game ‘cruise’ and listened to the baboons and abundant bird life. We also encountered zebra, wildebeest, giraffes and various types of antelope (including the red lechwe, endemic to the region) on a walking safari. All in all however I did not feel that the trip was great value, it was still quite expensive and anywhere else in the world would probably be unacceptable. However, the only other option for backpackers to see any of the delta is to hang around the airport and wait for standby seats on the scenic flights, but this is too much a hit-and-miss option and doesn’t get you up close and personal to the wildlife. It would however protect you from the squillions of flying insects that spend the whole mokoro journeys trying to insert themselves in your ears, nostrils or any other orifice they can access!

Someone told us they thought Botswanans are the laziest people in Africa. Whilst I could not make such a statement it is true that they are so laid-back they are almost horizontal! In most countries in the world on arrival at a bus station you would be met by several guys all trying to get you and your luggage onto a bus, even in Indonesia they can manage this, where the scent of tourist dollars outweighs their innate laziness! Here on arrival no-one stirs, they all sit in the minibus, we even had to open the door ourselves! Heaven forbid trying to travel with your backpacks, they will tell you to take the next bus. Sometimes the drivers are too lazy even to stop, I cannot imagine another country in this part of the world where a half-empty bus would fail to stop to pick up passengers! Possibly the most frustrating example is asking anybody a question, especially directions. I am sure my beard grew an inch or so just waiting for the answer, often just a couple of words and a brief hand signal!

Independent travel in Botswana is expensive but possible, food and park entry fees are relatively cheap and transport, once you can find it, is not unreasonably priced. Camping is slightly more expensive than in neighbouring countries but is easy to find. The problem is the price of any organised tour or activity blows all other costs away, but who would come to Botswana and not visit the Okavango Delta, let alone Chobe National Park (which is fairly cheap to visit) or the salt pans?

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