On our first night after crossing into Botswana we stayed at a campsite where a group of San bushmen performed a traditional dance around a fire. I did my best to not dwell on the disheartening aspects of modernity’s impact on indigenous people, but I only made it through a few songs before retreating to my tent.
The next day we drove to Maun, where some in our group paid extra to fly over the Okavango Delta in a small plane. I skipped the flight and hung out in town, eventually ending up in a restaurant with Noah and Iris, a Korean couple I hadn’t gotten to know very well yet. Noah and Iris weren’t their real names, of course, just aliases they’d chosen to make it easier for those of us who had zero chance of pronouncing their Korean names.
The idea of adopting an entirely new name at the start of a trip fascinated me. How did they pick the names Noah and Iris? Did the selection of new names subtly (or even not-so-subtly) begin to change how they think of themselves? Are they different people when they leave their country? I tried asking, but their English was basic and they looked at me as if I’d gone crazy. I don’t often meet Koreans when I travel and I wished I could have done a better job communicating with them.
The following day Tenk, our driver and guide, handed us over to some people from Nguma Island, a lodge in the Okavango Delta where we’d be spending the next two nights. After a short ride to the lodge we dropped off our stuff and went out on an afternoon boat tour.
We didn’t have any luck finding hippos that afternoon, but we did get some up-close looks at Nile crocodiles. At one point a baby croc swam right up to my side of the boat, close enough to touch, but it vanished before I could even lift my camera.
Back at the lodge we had our first introduction to some of the vervet monkeys that frequently swung through the surrounding treetops.
In the morning we took motor boats to an island deeper in the delta, and on the way our guide somehow spotted a baby crocodile perched on a papyrus reed.
At the island we transferred from motor boats to mekoro, traditional canoes that were once hollowed out from wooden logs but now made of fiberglass. Each mokoro held two people plus a local guide who used a pole to propel us through the marshy water.
Again we had no luck with hippos, but we did find a couple of elephants. I shared my boat with Joseph, a Nomad Tours trainee in his mid-30s who was originally from Zimbabwe but now lived in South Africa. Joseph was fond of imitating the American street accents he’d heard in movies. “Yo man,” he’d say with mock aggression, “I’m from Chee-CA-go!” The first time I’d met Joseph he tried to execute some kind of complex handshake and I failed him miserably.
“We passed a python in the water,” Joseph mentioned when we stopped for lunch.
“What? Why didn’t you say something?”
“I did not see it either. The guide just told me.” Apparently the python had been pretty close, and the guide was worried that if he told us we might freak out and tip over the mokoro.
Early the next morning we left the delta and rendezvoused with Tenk, who’d enjoyed some well-deserved R&R with Kennedy, the Namibian cook who’d joined us in Swakopmund, and Aki, a Japanese student traveling alone who’d opted out of the Ngoma Island trip. It sounded like Aki had some entertaining stories from his two days with Tenk and Kennedy, but he’d been sworn to secrecy.
Later that day we crossed back into Namibia and the following morning we woke up extra early for a lengthy drive along the Caprivi strip towards Zimbabwe. Shortly before the sun rose Tenk slammed on the brakes as a pack of African wild dogs crossed the road in front of us. I couldn’t believe it – African wild dogs are extremely rare (fewer than 5,000 left in the world, according to some estimates) and it never crossed my mind that we’d have a chance to see one, let alone a pack. I only spotted four of them but others said there were at least six. They moved quickly and the few photos I managed to get in the dim light were blurry, but wow, it was really exciting.
In the afternoon we crossed back into Botswana for a sunset boat ride in Chobe National Park. Elephants crowded the shore, and we finally saw hippos as well as African buffalo.
That night our group received some big news. Sarah and Matthias, a German couple I liked a lot, announced that they’d gotten engaged back on Nguma Island. Matthias finally popped the question after seven years of dating. Sarah said Matthias first wanted to propose in Sossusvlei and then again in Spitzkoppe, but each time she’d messed up his plans before he could follow through. The third time was the charm. Martin, the Argentinean who made friends with everyone he met, vanished soon after Sarah and Matthias’ announcement and returned with a bottle of pink champagne from the bar, giving us a chance to toast to the newly engaged couple.
Early the next morning we stumbled out of our tents for a cold sunrise game drive in Chobe. Stephen, the Irish student who’d become one of my favorite people in our group, looked particularly haggard. He blamed it on Martin. “He kept buying wine at the bar and wouldn’t let us leave,” Stephen complained. “I don’t even like wine. We didn’t get back to the tents until 2am.”
I had to give Stephen credit for toughing it out. Martin skipped the game drive to sleep. We didn’t see any big cats that morning, but it was fun to drive around the park.
Back at our tents I ran into Martin. “Sounds like you all did good work at the bar last night. Not back until 2am?”
“No, for me 4am,” Martin said, laughing.
“Stephen said you guys came back at two.”
“They, yes. Me, I walk back with them but leave again.”
Ha! I had to ask the obvious question. “Where did you go between two and four?”
“Out,” replied Martin pointedly, followed by another hearty laugh.
That afternoon we crossed into Zimbabwe and headed right to Victoria Falls. The scope and power of the place is awesome, one of the coolest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. For me Iguazu is still the king, but I’d put Vic Falls ahead of all the others. The water level was so high that the spray drenched us when we got close and made it impossible to see the bottom.
For dinner that night – our last as a full group – we went to a place that served a variety of local game, including warthog, kudu, and crocodile. Everything was surprisingly good, although we didn’t miss the irony that very recently we were breathlessly admiring the beauty of creatures we were now consuming.
It had been a fantastic tour. We saw countless amazing things, and the people – the other group members and the Nomad staff – made the experience even better. Strong personalities like Tenk’s can sometimes get old fast, but from start to finish he was an excellent guide and leader. He seemed to know everything about the places we went, he was an outstanding driver, and he made me laugh every single day.
I’ve already mentioned many of the people in our group, but I also had a great time meeting Flo, a German student who left the tour in Windhoek; Linda, a Finn who now lives in Switzerland and insists that ants regularly kill snakes; Matea and Laura, students from Switzerland; Nadine, a Dutch student who never missed an opportunity to work on her tan; Lammie, a Dutch solo traveler; and Julia, a German dentist who likes to climb cranes in her spare time. It was an extraordinarily friendly and positive group.
After being on a tour for so long it felt strange to be back on my own again. I thought I’d cross over to Zambia and look for opportunities to visit more wildlife areas, but I didn’t have any set plans until my next tour left Victoria Falls in about 10 days.