When I planned my Africa trip I left the middle part blank. I knew I’d need a change of pace after the highly-scheduled overland tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, but I wasn’t sure what I’d feel like doing, so I gave myself some open time before the start of my next tour.
From my hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe I could literally walk to Zambia, which is exactly what I decided to do. The road to the border felt like a game park. I passed a group of chattering mongooses, several bored baboons, and a family of warthogs before crossing the Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi River. Once I cleared the border post I took a taxi to Livingstone, only about seven miles up the highway.
In Livingstone I tried, unsuccessfully, to find a last-minute deal on a trip to one of Zambia’s big national parks. Had I arrived a little earlier I could have joined a multi-day canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi, but my timing was slightly off. The best option I found was a three-day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana. I’d just been to Chobe the week before, but this was a chance to camp inside the park and see a lot more of it.
On the first morning of the trip a minivan took a group of us to the Botswana border, where we rode a small motorboat across the river and met a driver who took us on to Kasane, the town right next to Chobe. Two other tourists would be with me the whole time: Sue and her daughter Lily, from Australia.
Our first activity was a boat ride on the Chobe River, something I’d already done. But wildlife experiences are never the same, and this time we had a chance to watch two elephants swim across the river to Sedudu Island.
After the boat ride we drove into the park and met Ace, our guide for the rest of our time in Chobe. Ace lived up to his name – he was friendly, he knew his stuff, and he spoke great English. With Ace was a sunburned Polish couple who had been there the night before and would be leaving the next day. They seemed upset at the rudimentary nature of their campsite but happy that they’d been lucky with wildlife. “Yesterday we see 18 lions,” said the husband.
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the park. During my previous visit we’d only run into a few giraffes, but this time they were everywhere.
On our way back to the campsite after sunset I caught a glimpse of yellow fur moving in the brush. “Lions!” We’d stumbled across eight lion cubs play-stalking impalas.
Soon after leaving the cubs we found a hyena walking towards us on the road, just starting its nocturnal prowling in the fading light. “If the hyena sees those lion cubs he will eat them,” said Ace.
Our campsite wasn’t what I expected. No fences, no permanent facilities of any kind, just a makeshift pit toilet and a few tents pitched in a clearing. A couple of Ace’s colleagues had set up some chairs around a campfire and were busy cooking dinner. I loved it. “If you have to leave your tent at night, shine your torch first to make sure there are no dangerous animals nearby,” Ace warned us.
Around the fire I got to know Sue and Lily and the Polish couple. Lily, recently out of university, was volunteering with a wildlife conservancy in South Africa. Young and idealistic, Lily at one point unselfconsciously declared that when her generation came to power they would solve the world’s big problems. For now she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be a veterinarian or start a career in wildlife conservation.
Lily’s mom Sue had just flown in from New South Wales for a quick visit. Sue was a psychologist who focused on “deep diaphragm breathing,” and years ago she’d helped advise Bhutan on the country’s Gross National Happiness initiative, which I’d just been reading about in a book called The Geography of Bliss. Sue raved about Bhutan and said she’d become a Buddhist.
These were interesting people and I was sick of small talk, so I tried stirring the pot. What did Sue think of missionaries in Africa? Did Ace believe that decades of international aid had actually helped Africa, or hurt it? How did the Polish couple feel about the current state of their country, which, like Mongolia, has the geographical misfortune of being a small country trapped between two powerhouses? In turn I was asked for my views on Trump. We had an interesting conversation and nobody punched anyone else. Eclectic mixes of people and opinions in strange settings are one of the highlights of international travel.
After dinner we heard a series of unusual animal calls. Even Ace was stumped, but his best guess was that lions and hyenas were having some kind of dustup. He wondered if the hyena we saw had discovered the cubs. Often throughout the night we were woken by the guttural roaring of lions. Even half-conscious I felt incredibly lucky to be having that experience. If your sleep has to be disturbed by something, I thought, why not the king of the jungle?
At sunrise the next morning we drove out to look for the lions. Ace found their tracks but the lions managed to stay hidden all day. I was frustrated that Ace’s radio wasn’t working, which meant he didn’t know when other guides saw something interesting. We were lucky enough to spot a honey badger – the first I’d ever seen in the wild – running parallel to us about 20 meters away, but I didn’t manage to get a good shot before it vanished.
That evening we moved to a new campsite and two more people joined us: Josh and Jen, an unfailingly nice married couple from Raleigh, North Carolina. Josh told us he was in “the movie-making business,” and Jen said she was the curator of an art museum and the host of a podcast.
Ominous signs appeared quickly. When he heard Sue and Lily were from Australia, Josh said, “Oh, a couple of years ago I made a short film about a poem by an Australian bushman.” Soon after, apropos of nothing, Jen said, “My friend who I was traveling with is a specialist in Zulu pottery.”
Their anecdotes and banter had a polished, rehearsed quality that – with the red below-empty light on my introvert battery already flashing – hit me like nails on a chalkboard. They were a matched-couple version of Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty.
Sue and Lily were unaffected by the sinister vortex that had descended on our camp. They enjoyed talking with someone new. Every time Lily spoke, Jen responded with, “Oh my gosh! That is so amazing!”
After a while Lily asked Jen if they’d seen lions today.
“Oh my gosh, yes!” Jen said. “Just before sunset we saw lions chasing a pack of African wild dogs.” I looked for a smile but she wasn’t joking. And they hadn’t been very far from us. AAAAAAAGGGHHH!
I went to sleep early.
Before our game drive the next morning Josh gave me the business card Jen used for her job as a podcast host. “Oh my gosh!” Jen said, laughing. “I think he hands out more of those things than I do!”
It was enough to unhinge me again. How often had Jen used that line? Had a fellow traveler ever given me a business card before? What were these people doing at a campsite in the Botswana bush?! Lions chasing African wild dogs?!
Thankfully we managed to locate the lion pride that morning, and the joy of seeing them swept away my horrified overreaction to Josh and Jen. So many safari jeeps converged on the lions that it became almost impossible to follow the pride as it moved.
After a late breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Josh and Jen. Josh had changed into a pink linen shirt and white linen pants, and he’d put his hair up in some sort of unholy cross between a ponytail and a man-bun.
“Nice to meet you,” Lily said to them.
“Oh my gosh!” Jen gushed. “It was so amazing!”
Just before leaving, Josh gave me his business card and said, “Let me know if you ever need any video work.”
Whew! I’d survived the Js, but not without turning cranky (which hurt me later). At mid-day Ace drove us back to Kasane for one more boat trip before leaving Chobe.
When we returned to Livingstone that evening the driver turned and asked where I was staying.
“Jollyboys,” I said. It was a popular backpacker place I’d booked just before going to Chobe. Marie, of course, had enjoyed making fun of me for choosing a place called Jollyboys.
“Jollyboys Backpackers or Jollyboys Camp?” the driver asked.
“Camp,” I said. “But aren’t they in the same place?”
They weren’t in the same place. Jollyboys Backpackers was right in town, a great location, but Jollyboys Camp was out in the boonies. I’d screwed up and booked the wrong one. At Jollyboys Camp I asked if I could move to the Backpackers, but it was too late, no rooms left.
Hunger didn’t help my reaction. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the Camp only served food in the morning. I thought I’d just walk to town for dinner, but the receptionist warned me against being on the streets after dark. “We can call you a taxi,” she added.
Not worth the hassle. Swatting away mosquitoes, I stomped over to check out my room. A bad smell hit me when I opened the door. The bed sheets were stained, and the room was too far away from the main area to get the wi-fi signal, which was terrible anyway. The place I’d stayed in Livingstone earlier had been cheaper and much, much nicer.
I snapped. For the first time on this trip I had a little temper tantrum. Marie helped by letting me vent my petty frustrations over texts, but I didn’t really bounce back until the next morning when I visited the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. Turns out it’s pretty easy to put a bad hotel choice into perspective when you’re standing in front of one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
Both Zimbabwe and Zambia claim to have the best view of Vic Falls, and after seeing both sides I can’t decide who’s right – they’re equally awesome.