Saturday, January 8, 2011

a whirlwind holiday

A lot has happened since our last update. We finished up the school year with a few more parties including a creche (preschool) graduation. I somehow got roped into photographing this event which caused a lot of stress for me. I have resigned from any further photography duties. Creche graduations here are a very big deal. There were multiple wardrobe changes. Kids came in their Bafana Bafana jerseys and did the first part of the program in those. Then they paraded around in their underwear before changing into their formal attire (bowties and sunglasses were quite popular for the boys, white dresses and make up for the girls). Finally, they donned caps and gowns. It was an epic event.

Then the day of the camp finally arrived complete with pouring rain. The camp was definitely a success in that all the kids really enjoyed themselves and the life skills classes were actually substantial and they learned something (they did role plays and other things relating to decision making, peer pressure, etc facilitated by our wonderful counterparts), but the rain prevailed every day. Only one day was the weather good enough to play outside for more than short periods of time so we improvised, replacing sports with drama and more indoor games. We got kids pretty sweaty with indoor dodgeball and chair netball. I mostly led the crafts which were a lot of fun, but when we finished early, I got to play some games too. Four square is a new favorite. Unfortunately, because of the rain, our attendance was a lot lower than expected. Lots of parents did not want their children walking to the camp in the rain and getting sick which is understandable. On a good note, we did not have to worry about the heat or having enough water since we could collect rain water. Including middle school kids also worked well as we got them really engaged in everything.

Then, after the camp ended we were off to Botswana. The first day we drove really far, to Nata, and didn't get in til maybe 10 o'clock at night. It wouldn't have been so late but it took us a while to get the rental car and do some errands in Pretoria. The next day we had a much shorter drive to Maun. We stopped along the way to see the salt pans on the side of the road, to really see the salt pans you need a 4wd and GPS but we walked around a little bit to get an idea. We also stopped at Planet Baobab a really cool lodge with lots of giant baobab trees and had a drink. On the side of the road, we saw some elephants and giraffes. Once we got to Maun, we hung out and did some grocery shopping.

The next day, we left in the morning for our mokoro trip. They took us on a speedboat to the village where the guides and polers stay (you need a poler, it's like a gondola). We met our guide Martin there and poler for the other boat, Luka, who was only 16. Mekoros are traditional dugout canoes and the coolest thing about riding in them is how close you are to the water. Before we went I was afraid of putting my hands in the water because of crocodiles, but they said it was fine. We rode about an hour and a half to our campsite (not a developed campsite, just a place to pitch tents and dig a toilet hole). You go through small channels in the reeds that are cut by hippos. They are pretty narrow so you are constantly getting smacked in the face by reeds. There are also tons of waterlilies everywhere, it was beautiful. We arrived at our campsite and set stuff up, hanging out for a few hours while it was hot. We went swimming at a nearby spot where the water was pretty clear and deep. Once it got cooler, we went on a couple hour walk looking for animals. We saw some giraffes in the distance and a buffalo skull but that was it.

The next morning we left at 5:30 for another longer hike. This one was a lot more rewarding in terms of animals. We saw a big leopard tortoise, then Martin told us he saw some zebra in the distance. We got closer and ended up being less than 100 feet from tons of zebras and wildebeest as well as a few tsessebe. It was extremely cool to watch the animals in that setting on an island in the Okavango Delta without a car or anything. Martin told us some crazy stories about his encounters with hippos and other guides with lions and leopards, but we didn't see anything dangerous.

The rest of our time in the Delta was spent relaxing, riding around the mekoros, learning how to make Delta necklaces from waterlilies, and swimming. We headed back to Maun the next morning. Back in town, we went shopping and got gas. Botswana was in the middle of a short and unprecedented petrol shortage so the line at the gas station was really long. We waited about 30 minutes. A few hours later though, the line had expanded (they were now the only place in town with petrol left) to at least 200 cars. It was crazy. We went to a crocodile farm which was a disturbing experience. There were hundreds of crocodiles in each pen and the smell was overwhelming. They were on top of each other and there really was no space to move around. The older, like 100 year old, crocs had more space to move around, but they were so fat it was just gross.

The next day we drove to Kasane in the northeastern corner of Botswana near the border of Zambia, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. On the drive, we saw an ostrich and lots of elephants on the side of the road. Some were in the midst of road construction, just hanging out on the closed portion of the road. Once we got to Kasane, we saw warthogs just walking around in the middle of the town.

The next day we we went on a game drive in Chobe National Park in the morning. You need 4wd to go in the park so we went with a group organized by the place we were staying. The shear numbers of animals we saw was amazing, we saw hundreds of elephants, Cape buffalo, and impalas. We also saw lots of baboons and vervet monkeys. We saw some warthogs and giraffes. In the water, we could see hippos and crocodiles. We saw a monitor lizard near the water. We also saw lots of cool birds including vultures, maribou stork, and hornbills like Zazu from Lion King. Sadly no lions though the guide had heard they were about and we followed some of their footprints for a while.

In the afternoon, we returned to the park this time in a boat. From the boat, we got to see lots of hippos close up as well as lots elephants playing in the water as well as litche (a type of antelope). We saw vultures eating a buffalo that had been killed by a lion earlier in the day. It was a cool way to see the animals, but it was a little bit colored by the obnoxious drunk Australians on the boat.

The next day we left for the border in the morning. We were a bit nervous about getting to Livingstone because we left our car in Kasane rather than deal with border crossing fees. It ended up working extremely well as we found taxis right away on both sides of the border. The border crossing is a short ferry ride from Botswana to Zambia. The ferry is much smaller than the Islesboro ferry and can only fit one truck at a time so the truck line must take days. On the drive to Livingstone, a black mamba crossed the road right in front of our car, it had to be at least 6 feet long. Once we arrived in Livingstone, we headed to a market. There are no markets in Botswana or South Africa so it was quite fun to wander around. Cloth was really cheap so I bought some even though I didn't really need it. That night, we went to a Mexican restaurant for tacos and margaritas, quite exciting since South Africa has maybe 2 or 3 Mexican restaurants in the whole country.

The next day it was time to see Victoria Falls. We headed out early to do the walk to Livingstone Island to swim in Devil's Pool. We had heard this was amazing but didn't know much about it. We met our guide and proceeded to walk about a kilometer across the top of the falls. We had no idea we'd really be walking across the water to get there. I guess when the water is lower, it's less like walking in water and more like walking across rocks, but we were up to our knees at times just 50 feet from the edge of the falls. We got to look over in a few spots and it's pretty amazing. It's a lot different from Niagara Falls because it is a gorge on both sides. It goes straight down and the cliff on the other side goes straight up. Upon arriving on Livingstone Island, our guide instructed us that we would swim the rest of the way. It looked a lot scarier than it was, but you could theoretically go over the edge if you got knocked out or something. The pool itself is just separated from the edge of the falls by a rock about a meter wide. You can jump in which was really scary, but exhilarating. We all jumped in a couple of times. It wasn't fun to stay in the water long because these fish kept biting our feet.

After heading back, we spent the rest of the day looking at the falls from lots of different viewpoints and marvelling at where we jumped in. Ryan did the bungee jump off of the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia which was cool to watch, but I'd never do myself. Oh yeah, and that was Christmas day. It didn't feel very Christmasy but it was lots of fun.

The next day we went white water rafting. Everyone warned us it would be crazy which made me a bit nervous since I never really thought of it as something scary when I've been in the past. I ended up feeling similarly, wasn't scary but was really really fun. You start just below the falls, and the first rapid is pretty huge. Some boats had to try 4 or 5 times to get across it. We were fine the first time. The morning was a ton of big rapids. We did flip once and spend a few minutes being tossed around before making it out of the water. The afternoon was much calmer, but still fun.

The following day it was time to head home. We returned to Botswana and drove to Palapye, and then the next day back to Pretoria and home. Since returning home, we celebrated New Years with our extended host family and have been relaxing and getting ready for school to start again next week.

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