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St. Lucia to Durban and Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve

October 31, 2008 – Friday – Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve safari, then St. Lucia to Durban

Our wakeup call is at 4:45am this morning, and we depart the Protea Hotel in St. Lucia by 5:15am for our safari to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. The box breakfast the hotel prepares for us is nothing short of dreadful. While we were on safari, I drink the juice and eat the fruit, but throw the rest of the box breakfast away in favour of granola bars I always bring with me when traveling.

JoeTourist: KwaZulu-Natal Province &emdash; Black Rhinoceros grazing on the hillside
Black Rhinoceros grazing on the hillside

This game reserve is the oldest proclaimed park in South Africa (1895), and is known for its rich wildlife. It is the only park in KwaZulu-Natal where all of the big five occur. This is the only time I see Black Rhinoceros (leaf browsers, pointed mouths, much smaller that the White). I manage to shoot some video of the Black Rhino despite them being so far away. We also see some White Rhinoceros (grass feeders, square mouth, twice as big as the Black), as well as Elephant, Lions, Zebras, Kudu and Giraffes. The safari ends around 9am – my last safari on this trip.

St. Lucia to Durban

We board our bus, and many of us sleep as we drive to Durban. Not long after we leave Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, we start seeing the Indian Ocean coastline. The communities north of Durban appear to be quite affluent, with lots of big houses situated either right on the coast, or having a water view. The bus pulls into Gateway Shopping Mall – a super-sized destination mall with four levels, a wave machine, skating, IMAX theatre, and a huge number of shops and restaurants. This mall caters to a very affluent clientele – including us of course!

JoeTourist: Durban &emdash; Pink Orchids in the Orchid House at the Botanical Garden
Pink Orchids in the Orchid House at the Botanical Garden

After looking around for awhile, I end up at Sam Brown’s for lunch. I have a good cappuccino, however the roast chicken sandwich is only mediocre. After an hour or so, we re-board the bus and carry on to Durban. Before we check into our hotel, the bus drops us off at the Botanical Garden. There are some spectacular orchids in the Orchid House, and I have some very nice tea and a scone at the tea house. We also stop at the Indian Market, which is a fun place to waste some time.

Downtown Durban is a chaotic mess. There are taxi vans picking up people everywhere, the traffic seems to go in six directions at once, and just to add insult to injury, the street names are all being changed so there are two different signs for most streets!

We are staying at the Tropicana Hotel, which is located right on the beach downtown. The room is nothing special but it’s clean. Craig tells us we shouldn’t walk the beach area due to a “bad element”. He certainly is correct about that – I see lots of action going on across the street which I would rather not be part of! This evening we have a group dinner at RJ’s restaurant – which is about a 20 minute drive across the city. The restaurant isn’t prepared to serve 40 people at once, but the staff do their best. The food is mediocre, but everyone in our group stays good humoured about it.

After returning to our hotel, I’m kept up most of the night from noisy street parties happening all around us. I work on my computer sorting photos and video until the parties stop a few hours before dawn, so I only get a couple of hour’s sleep before our early wake up call. From my somewhat limited exposure to Durban, I am not impressed!

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Eswatini to St. Lucia

October 30, 2008 – Thursday – Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to St. Lucia, South Africa

As with all our hotel arrangements, my stay at the Royal Swazi includes breakfast, but this morning I just can’t face a full English breakfast of eggs and bacon. Instead, I have hot cereal, fruit, and brown toast. I catch the shuttle back to the Lugogo Sun Hotel and check in with Craig and board the bus. This is certainly the property the group tours use – there are people and buses everywhere this morning as everyone gets ready to depart. The Royal Swazi was tranquil in comparison.

Craig tells us some of the history of Swaziland, and we are taken around to see the royal compound where the old Swazi king Sobhuza II lived. He had 70 wives and over 1,000 grandchildren! The new Swazi king Mswati III has 14 wives at present. Apparently a Swazi king is expected to marry a woman from every clan in order to keep good relationships with every corner of Swaziland. The current King isn’t very popular, since most Swazis think he spends too much money on himself and his wives (which appears to be true). A giant road sign near Manzini wishes the King a happy 40th birthday. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS rate of any country in the world.

JoeTourist: Swaziland &emdash; Dyed cloth in the sunlight at the Swazi Candle Factory
Dyed cloth in the sunlight at the Swazi Candle Factory

We stop at the Swazi Candle factory and a roadside fruit & curio stand before we get to the border point at Golela by noon. We wait for a half an hour in the hot sun to clear South African customs and immigration, however Craig assures us that wait times at the other border points into South Africa from Swaziland can run to several hours. We are just grateful to be back on the air conditioned bus, and on our way to St. Lucia, located on the Indian Ocean coast. We stop at a highway rest stop and I have lunch at Wimpy’s again – ordering the hake fish & chips. It is very good and cost less than 50 Rand (US$5.00) including a small Coke.

We arrive at the Protea Hotel in St. Lucia at 4pm and soon learn this whole area is under severe water restrictions. The municipality shuts off the water at 9pm and doesn’t turn it back on until 5am. They also turn the water off midday from 10am-3pm. The hotel is no great shakes, but it will do for the night.

JoeTourist: KwaZulu-Natal Province &emdash; African Fish Eagle - St. Lucia Estuary
African Fish Eagle – St. Lucia Estuary

Most of us take the St. Lucia Estuary Boat Cruise at 5pm, which cruises up the estuary showing us some of the wildlife along the shores: African Fish Eagle, Goliath Heron, Hippopotamus, Kudu, and some smaller animals. I don’t think it is up to the standard of the Chobe River boat cruise in Botswana, but I take my best photos and video of hippos and African Fish Eagles on this cruise. I’m a bit annoyed by my group – they won’t stop talking, so the wildlife are skittish. The guy at the helm of the boat runs right over a hippo – such an idiot! This is one of South Africa’s World Heritage sites, however the South Africans need to take better care of it.

On the way back from the boat cruise, Craig tells us about the timing for the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve open vehicle safari tomorrow morning. Our wakeup call will be 4:45am, and we need to be out the door by 5:15am! He says the safari will end around 9am, so that works for me. I guess lots of us will be sleeping on the bus as we proceed to Durban tomorrow.

This evening I go to Alfredo’s Italian restaurant for dinner, which is located across the street from the Protea Hotel in St. Lucia. This is a family run restaurant with very reasonable prices. I order the Seafood Misto (prawns, line fish & calamari strips), an Italian salad starter, and a glass of wine. This is the best seafood I’ve had in a long time. Total cost is 190 Rand (US$20) – a very good price! This meal would be at least double the price in Canada. I had a Cappuccino to finish – a bit watery, and the décor is drab, but overall I highly recommend this restaurant because of the excellent food and good service.

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Hazyview to Eswatini

October 29, 2008 – Wednesday – Hazyview, South Africa to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)

JoeTourist: Mpumalanga Province &emdash; Tourists crossing the border into Swaziland at Jeppes Reef
Tourists crossing the border into Swaziland at Jeppes Reef

After we leave the resort, we drive around the perimeter of Kruger National Park, so Craig tells us about the “Informal” development right up to the fence around the park. We take N4 national road, driving through a fruit and sugar cane growing region, crossing the Crocodile River, and end up at the border crossing at Jeppes Reef. Most of the group goes to see the “cultural show” at the Matsamo Cultural Village. I opt to just have lunch there, and occupy my spare time watching the big crocodile in the pond and photographing the Southern Masked-Weaver birds as the males build their nests. After we leave South Africa (more paperwork), we walk “no man’s land” (as Craig describes it) across the border into Swaziland. After clearing Swazi customs, we board the bus and carry on.

JoeTourist: Swaziland &emdash; Looking through the porthole in gift shop
Looking through the porthole in the Ngwenya Glass factory gift shop

We drive the excellent roads in this land-locked country, and soon stop at a roadside stand (one of many). Normally I don’t buy anything at these stops, but this time I decide to support the local economy by buying two stone carvings (an elephant and a hippo) from the local artists. Next stop is the Ngwenya Glass factory in Motshane near Manzini, the biggest city in Swaziland. I find the glass factory underwhelming, however Craig tells us the factory is an important contributor to the local economy, and I can honestly say they do make some beautiful glass objects.

We pass lots of kids who seem to love to wave to tour buses. Mbabane is the capital of Swaziland, although nearby Manzini is a bigger city. There is a very nice expressway built into Mbabane, and it is currently being completed through to the other side of the city. There is obviously some money in Swaziland to pay for this rather expensive infrastructure.

It doesn’t take too long for us to arrive at the Sun Lugogo Resort, which is where Thompsons Travel has booked everyone into for this evening. I had previously arranged to splurge a little, by staying next door at the Royal Swazi Spa Resort. Craig organizes a shuttle for me, since he is busy dealing with rooms and luggage at the Sun Lugogo. He pops over a bit later to ensure that I am happy with the accommodation. The Royal Swazi Spa Resort is certainly deluxe – lawn bowling, full service pool, casino, 3 restaurants, tennis courts, spa, a country club & golf course, and a business centre.

JoeTourist: Swaziland &emdash; Main entrance to the Royal Swazi Spa hotel
Main entrance to the Royal Swazi Spa hotel

After settling into my room and walking around the extensive grounds, I decide to have dinner at Planters restaurant in the hotel. I start with a Gin and Tonic and order the Sticky Ribs. My ribs were tough but flavourful. I order a cappuccino to finish, and it comes in a LavAzza cup with crystallized sugar on wooden sticks on the side – a nice touch. The meal cost 180 Rand (US$20) including tip, which by South African standards is expensive, but by European or North American standards is not expensive at all. There is a big thunderstorm with lots of lightning for a couple of hours around dusk. The lights go out (briefly) in the restaurant a few times.

Of course, there is always people watching to occupy my time. There are four of us single diners in the restaurant this evening, including an overdressed Oriental woman seated at the table beside me. She sends back her salad, saying it is “scummy” – accusing the kitchen staff of not washing it properly. Mind you, she washes her cutlery in a water glass at the table before using them! Personally, I think she is a high class hooker from the house of ill repute down the street (which Craig pointed out on our way up to the resort), but I don’t really know anything about her. I always find things to amuse me when I travel alone. I’m very pleased to get away from the group for this evening.

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Kruger Park

October 28, 2008 – Tuesday – Kruger National Park, South Africa

I am out of bed by 4:30am this morning. The hotel has coffee ready for us in the lobby at 5am, and the bus departs at 5:30am. Today is the optional half day open vehicle Safari in the famous Kruger National Park. Kruger was one of the first big game preserves setup in Africa. Alfred is our driver and guide today.

JoeTourist: Kruger Park &emdash; Two sentry Lions for the lioness and her 3 cubs
Two sentry Lions for the lioness and her 3 cubs (below, right corner)

Only a few minutes after we depart from the main gate, we spot a troupe of baboons as they sit on the rocks watching the beautiful sunrise. Just down the same road we spot a lioness & her three cubs in the rocks, along with a couple more lions who appear to be sentries. Again, they are facing east toward the beautiful sunrise. Either of these scenes could easily be the model used by Disney for their Lion King movies – African game perched on big round rocks, showing the same beautiful early morning light.

Next up is a big herd of buffalo – perhaps 100-200 head. Some of us are concerned for our safety, since these beasts could easily overturn our vehicle and they are only 10 metres away. We move on and spot a baby elephant walking through the bush along the roadway, and then we see a baby Giraffe who still has a dangling umbilical cord despite him being upright and walking on his own. Albert says he is about a day old. We watch while he walks over to his mother and starts suckling.

JoeTourist: Kruger Park &emdash; Baby White Rhinoceros suckling on its mother at a water hole
Baby White Rhinoceros suckling on its mother at a water hole

Further down the road we encounter a big bull Elephant. Albert eventually has to move the Land Rover out of his way, since he wants to cross the road where we happen to be stopped. He had already shown us how strong he is by pushing over a tree while we watched from a few metres away!

Albert hears about rhinos on the radio, so he tells us to jump in the vehicle and drives quickly to a water hole where I sight my first rhinoceros in Africa (there are virtually none left in Botswana). It is a female White Rhinoceros with her baby – both placidly laying in the mud, at least until the same huge bull elephant we encountered a few minutes ago comes ambling along wanting to use the water hole. The female rhino stands up to face him, and he thinks better of his plan and carefully walks around the water hole and off into the bush – preferring to wait until she and her baby leave. The Zebra are at same water hole, content with the protection from lions that the rhino gives them.

JoeTourist: Kruger Park &emdash; Leopard under a tree beside a river

After we take a lunch break, Albert is driving us out of the rest area when he hears of a sighting of a leopard. He takes off at breakneck speed and we manage to home in on the leopard as it sits on a rock beside the river. I shoot a few seconds of video before the leopard disappears into the bush.

It is a four hour Safari, so Alfred drives us around for the next hour or two, however all we see is a couple more lions as they traverse a dry river bed. It is now late morning, and as I learned in Botswana, the animals all disappear by this time of day. I give Alfred a generous tip – he deserves it for finding all of the “big five” in about two hours!

This optional open vehicle safari was originally scheduled to take place in the afternoon. Craig knew the prime time for safaris is early morning, so he rearranged things for us. This is the sort of service an excellent guide will routinely do for tours, ensuring his clients get the maximum enjoyment from the arrangements.

Phineus and Craig take the bus around Kruger Park for the people who did not book the optional open vehicle safari. Obviously this group was not as mobile as we were in our Land Rover, however Kruger has mostly paved roads, so they spotted a surprising number of big game as well…all with the comfort of air conditioning.

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Johannesburg to Hazyview

October 27, 2008 – Monday – Johannesburg to Hazyview

We board our coach after breakfast this morning, and end up waiting for a half hour while a couple pull their bags apart in the parking lot looking for something terribly important.  Eventually we leave and learn our “Coach Captain” (driver) is called Phineus.  He proves to be a very good driver: good-humored, and always on time.  Our bus is quite new, very comfortable, air conditioned, and has a washroom and a fridge.

JoeTourist: Johannesburg to Hazyview &emdash; Freshly ploughed farm fields - red dirt
Freshly ploughed farm fields – red dirt

As we roll through Pretoria and onto South Africa’s national road system, we can see this is an excellent transportation system, with toll booths on certain sections.  The M4 divided highway takes us past Cullinan (some famous diamonds mined here), Witbank (surface coal mining & refining), Middelburg and Belfast (forestry & farming) before we turn off and end up in Lydenburg.  Most of us go to Wimpy’s for lunch – a fast food joint, South African style.

South Africa is home to the largest man-made forest in the world (140 sqkm). We learn that Pine trees are harvested after 10 years, with the trees growing to 12m high. Eucalyptus are also used in some areas, however they require more water, so they are falling out of favor. We see a steel mill just outside of Lydenburg.

JoeTourist: Johannesburg to Hazyview &emdash; Eroded rock formations on the Treur River at Bourke's Luck Potholes
Eroded rock formations on the Treur River at Bourke’s Luck Potholes

Panorama Route – Our first scenic stop is the viewpoint at the Blyde River Canyon, where we can fully appreciate the 800 metre drop to the canyon floor. Across the canyon are the “Three Rondavels”, huge round rocks that look like African huts. Our next stop is Bourke’s Luck Potholes, where the Treur River has eroded strange cylindrical potholes in the sandstone.

JoeTourist: Johannesburg to Hazyview &emdash; View of the Lowveld and escarpment from God's Window
View of the Lowveld and escarpment from God’s Window

Our last stop in this area is God’s Window, a dramatic vantage point to view the Drakensberg Mountain escarpment with beautiful views of the lowveld, and even Kruger National Park is visible on a clear day. This is where the quirky movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) was shot.

We arrive late in the afternoon in Hazyview after our first full day on the road. Hippo Hollow Country Estate is located on the tranquil Sabie River, where the resort’s namesake hippos regularly graze on the front lawn. My cottage is quite luxurious, having a king sized bed on the main floor and two single beds in a loft. My patio overlooks the Sabie River. There are very few mosquitoes, which seems strange with all the vegetation around and the slow flowing river only a few metres away…but I’m complaining!

JoeTourist: Hazyview &emdash; Shangaan River Club - the Chief
The Chief

7pm – Shangaan River Club – This is a cultural experience that is staged right on the grounds of Hippo Hollow, consisting of tribal drumming, singing and dancing, followed by a traditional African feast. The chief of the local village is the master of ceremonies, and he introduces his troupe of orphans who sing and dance. He is very animated, talking to us for well over three quarters of an hour before the performance begins.

The chief explains how he is personally responsible for the care of the orphans, many of which are the result of AIDS killing both of their parents. They support themselves by this arrangement with the Hippo Hollow Country Estate, so I’m pleased that Thompsons has chosen to include this performance in the tour. I shoot some high definition video using “night mode” on my Canon HV-20, which works quite well until I run out of video tape! Despite this glitch, I have enough video to capture the event.

The feast of culture served buffet style after the performance is very good. There are lots of choices from the usual soups and salads, as well as a nice selection of African meat dishes that are served from traditional cast iron pots. Fruit, dessert, and drinks are also included. This is all served under a massive boma, or thatched building right next to the performance area. It wasn’t just our group who were taking in the feast, however the staff coped with the crowds quite efficiently. All of my group seemed to enjoy themselves, and everyone left the tables fully satiated.

JoeTourist® recommends the Shangaan River Club.

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Pretoria

October 26, 2008 – Sunday – Pretoria (near Johannesburg), South Africa

There is a lagoon, pool & patio in front of the Protea Waterfront Hotel I am staying at for two nights. The hotel is adjacent to the Centurian Mall – which is a typical mall with lots of shops.

This evening at 7pm our tour group of 40 people meet downstairs in the hotel. Most of the group are British, with some Dutch and other Europeans mixed in as well. Our tour leader Craig Olivier introduces himself, gives us an overview of the tour, and answers questions. Craig also discusses the optional excursions that will be available as we travel along the route. I have pre-booked and prepaid most of the excursions I want, so I simply give Craig my coupons and I’m done. My radar normally goes up when tour companies offer add-ons, but in this case, these excursions offer excellent value and allow me to fully appreciate the South African experience.

I have Ostrich medallions in garlic sauce and a glass of local red wine for dinner in the hotel restaurant. I ask for the Ostrich to be done medium, but it is very rare, so I don’t eat all of it. It is very lean red meat, and tastes similar to beef. The following morning I have the breakfast buffet, which is a full European breakfast at reasonable cost. Buffets are common in South Africa, but they don’t use sneeze guards, unlike North American restaurants.

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Maun to Johannesburg

October 25, 2008 – Saturday – Maun, Botswana to Johannesburg, South Africa

I say goodbye to Victor and Ernst in Maun airport. Ernst’s connecting flight to Johannesburg doesn’t leave until tomorrow, so he will overnight in Maun. I give Victor a generous tip since he did such an outstanding job guiding us for the last 12 days.

When I check in for Air Namibia SW139 – Maun to Windhoek, they don’t want to check my bag since it is so small. Security isn’t concerned about liquids, so I take the bag aboard with me. The first officer hands everyone a meal tray as we board the Beech 1900D Airliner: Fruit juice, 2 little meat patties (cold), bottled water, dessert. It wasn’t bad – I eat most of mine while we wait on the ground, since the flight is delayed because ATC didn’t receive a flight plan! The first officer goes inside and files a flight plan, and we still depart on time, flying to Windhoek at 21,000′.

Flight map – Maun to Johannesburg via Windhoek

The in-transit waiting area at Windhoek Airport seems to be filled with mostly German speakers and South Africans speaking with that clipped English accent. I can’t get a wireless connection, but my cellphone seems to connect to the cellular network without a problem (as it did in Maun Airport). Windhoek Airport is very modern, clean, and well-run.

I encounter a very ignorant Afrikaner while lining up at the boarding gate at Windhoek Airport. He wanted to go first in line, so I invited him to go ahead of me. He then called me “a creep” by way of a thank you! Our Air Namibia SW712 – Windhoek – Johannesburg (Boeing 737-500) flight departs at 6:45pm. There are thunderstorms brewing as we board, with some light rain falling. The thunderstorms make the flight very choppy, but the Air Namibia cabin crew do a good job serving drinks and dinner.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg Airport, I don’t have to wait for luggage to appear on the carousel since I have my small bag and camera bag with me as carry-on luggage. I am diverted around South African immigration, so I end up moving through the airport rather quickly. I meet my driver as arranged by Thompsons Africa; we retrieve my big bag from storage, and we’re off to the Protea Waterfront Hotel. This hotel is located midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, so it takes almost an hour to wind our way through rush hour traffic on the expressways. I find my notebook computer is still inside my big bag as I unpack it in the hotel room – thank goodness!

Tomorrow I start the South African Surprise tour, which is a bus tour driving from Johannesburg down the coast of South Africa to Cape Town.

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Johannesburg to Livingston and Victoria Falls

October 16, 2008 – Thursday – Johannesburg, South Africa to Livingston, Zambia

I am up at 6am this morning, since I really didn’t sleep much last night. I sort out the repacking of my bags once again. Breakfast is included in the room tariff at the Mondior hotel, and is sumptuous in their Oriana Restaurant. South Africans sure know to eat!

When I check out this morning, I ask about storing my big bag at the hotel until my return on October 25th, they refuse since I’m not staying with them when I return to Johannesburg. So that was bad advice from Derek at Wilderness Safaris, however the front desk manager verifies that I can store my bag at the airport.

Johannesburg airport is being expanded, so it is chaotic and very noisy. They are gearing up for the FIFA 2010 International Soccer match. I find the baggage storage office and leave my big bag there – praying that it will still be there when I return on the 25th, and that my notebook computer will still be inside.

JoeTourist: Livingston &emdash; Zambian Airways Boeing 737-219 aircraft tail
Zambian Airways Boeing 737-219 aircraft tail at the gate in Johannesburg airport

There is some high drama at the gate next to where I board my flight. A young couple show up extremely late for their flight to Mauritius and they are told the gate is closed, so they are refused entry. Lots of yelling and crying ensues, however the gate staff prevail, and eventually they shut everything down and walk away. I do love people watching!

I’m really early for my flight on Zambian Airways to Livingston, but that’s me: leave lots of time. It was a good thing, since despite this morning’s confusion with the bag storage; I still had time to deal with it.

I just experienced my first oh shit moment. I realize that I left my expensive Canon binoculars tucked into an outside pocket on the bag I checked at the airline counter. It will be a minor miracle if it appears at the other end…sigh!

Zambian Airways departs about five minutes late without incident. I say a small prayer for my binoculars as we take off. The aircraft is a Boeing 737-200, which appears to be in pretty good shape. The in-flight meal is a “beef” sandwich, which turns out to be pork deli meat.

JoeTourist: Victoria Falls &emdash; Cataract islands in the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls
Cataract islands in the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls as viewed from the flight into Livingston

This is certainly an International flight: there are two large groups aboard (Czechs and Israelis). There is thick air pollution obscuring the view outside for most of the flight, however I manage to pick out the lake behind the Shashe Dam in Botswana near our midway point. I take some good photos of the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls on our final approach to Livingston Airport.

After we arrive at Livingston Airport, I retrieve my bag, and to my immense relief my binoculars are still tucked into the pocket I left them in, no worse for wear! I pay the outrageous US$50 Zambian Visa single entry fee and meet Victor, our Botswana guide in the waiting area. There is a female guard with an AK47 rifle in the Zambia National Commercial Bank office in the airport!

We wait for the the second safari participant Ernst (from Austria), who arrives on the next flight a half hour after me. Apparently he paid no Zambian entry fee since he is a European. It seems the Zambians charge U.S. citizens even more than I paid for the fee – so the fee charged depends what country you are from! Jacob is our driver and guide while we are in Zambia, since Victor is not a certified Zambian guide, so he is just along for the ride until we cross into Botswana.

Victoria Falls viewpoint map
Victoria Falls viewpoint map

Jacob drives us to Victoria Falls where we go on a walking tour in the midday heat (about 38°C in the shade). Since this is the dry season, the water on the Zambian side of the falls is almost completely dried up, however the Zimbabwe side (in the distance) has lots of water.

As we walk the trail along the top of the gorge, we get good views of both sides of the falls . We encounter a troop of baboons along the way which I am wary of, however Jacob assures me they are not aggressive as we pass by. I get Jacob to take a photo and video of me standing against the rail with Victoria Falls in the background – two I was there moments.

I find it a bit surreal as I walk along the gorge. It’s as though I’m not really here…I can’t explain the feeling further.

100 Billion Dollar Zimbabwe bank note
100 Billion Dollar Zimbabwe bank note

Ernst and I each buy a 100 billion dollar Zimbabwe bank note from some young men hanging around the border crossing at the Victoria Falls bridge. Cost is US$5. The Zimbabwe government can’t afford to print the bills (which are virtually worthless anyway), so they use recycled paper from cheques. The bills have an expiry date of only a few months after their issue date!

We drive westward for about an hour on a good paved road. Along the way I see a roadside stand near selling fish from a nearby stream, and we pass many Zambian villages along the way. Most people still live in round grass huts and keep their domestic animals in pens made from grass and sticks. After we pass Mwandi, we turn off on a sandy track that leads to Shackletons Lodge, located on the Zambezi River.

Sunset over the Zambezi River

My cottage overlooks a beautiful river vista. Ernst and I are the only guests, so we are treated royally. The lodge has two Jack Russell Terriers, so I feel right at home. Shackeltons is one of those places you file away, promising yourself you will return to one day.

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Victoria to Johannesburg

October 13, 2008 – Monday – Victoria, BC, Canada to Johannesburg, South Africa

JoeTourist: Victoria to Johannesburg &emdash; Native scupture in the secure departures waiting area
Native scupture in the secure departures waiting area at Vancouver airport

Today is my 56th birthday, and it is also the day I leave for Africa – what a birthday present this is! I am writing this entry as I sit in Vancouver Airport waiting for my flight to London/Heathrow. I had to take a 1:30pm flight from Victoria; however I don’t depart for Heathrow until 7:50pm, so I have five hours to kill. I also have another five hours to wait in Heathrow before I depart for Johannesburg. I left Victoria at 1:30pm on the 13th and I should arrive in Johannesburg at 7:10pm on the 15th!

At least I don’t have to clear security again here in Vancouver, however I’m in the area where Air Canada’s flight leaves and there are no shops open. At the moment, it is completely empty except for the odd passer-by. It looks like the Vancouver airport is being expanded in a fairly major way. Unfortunately, they have turned it into a maze of corridors.

People watching – I spot a woman packing her own pillow. I have to wonder if she is really going to drag that thing along with her wherever she is going. Another woman is wearing a small backpack which has a teddy bear in it. There appears to be nothing else in the backpack. She is busy on the Internet terminal doing her email. Perhaps the teddy bear has a large circle of friends?

It was drizzling when we left Victoria Airport, and it is raining pretty hard outside Vancouver Airport right now. It will be a welcome change to experience the hot and dry climate of Northern Botswana. By the looks of the climate tables, it should cool down a bit from the 40°C in Northern Botswana to the 25°C range by the time I travel down the South African coast to Cape Town.

I have a hot meatball sub from Subway for an appetizer around 4:30pm this afternoon after finding a food court about five minutes’ walk from where I had setup beside the gate. I am still in a secure area, so at least I don’t have to go through another security check just to have a meal. I’m not sure what Air Canada will serve after we are onboard, since our 7:50pm departure is well past the dinner hour. We are scheduled to arrive at London/Heathrow at 1:25pm local time, so I expect they will serve us a meal before our arrival. The stories about how Air Canada has cut back on in-flight services and meals makes me wonder what to expect on the upcoming flight.

There are a few dozen people in this area with the food court and shops, but the airport still looks pretty empty to me. There are only seven international departures up on the notice board for this evening: Amsterdam, two to London, JFK New York, Sydney, Taipei, and Hong Kong. I’m bored already, and I really haven’t started my journey. It seems everyone else is in the same situation: bored and killing time until their evening flights depart. One bonus: there is free Wireless Internet in the airport, so I can read and send email and browse some news and other online sources. I check my weather website: it is raining at home.

It is now 6:00pm and I’m back at the gate. There are sensible stout women waiting for the flight “home” to England (I assume). Almost all of them have a bag of duty free goods, and some of their feet are already swollen. The shops in the gate area are now open, so they obviously know there is little business when there are no flights scheduled (like this afternoon). It looks like the rain is settling in, so I will be glad to soon escape from this grey, cold and wet dreariness.

My time spent traveling is precious to me.

The holding lounge fills up by departure time. People are constantly after the gate staff to change their seat assignments, and they seem to good-naturedly put up with this endless parade. When I board there are no spare seats. I have a window seat and the seat beside me is occupied by a woman from Victoria. I’m happy she is quite small build, so we both have room to move. We will be over nine hours in the same seat.

Vancouver to Heathrow flight map
Vancouver to Heathrow flight map

The aircraft pulls away from the terminal and then just sits there for about 20 minutes. The pilot finally tells us there is a mechanical problem, so we pull back into another gate at the terminal and spend the next two hours sitting around while they fix the aircraft. The crew and pilot keep us informed along the way, and we finally depart two hours late. It’s not a problem for me, since I have a five hour layover in London/Heathrow, but other passengers with tighter connections are justifiably worried.

JoeTourist: Victoria to Johannesburg &emdash; Aurora over the North polar region
Aurora over the North polar region out the aircraft window

Once we level out at cruising altitude, a nice dinner is served with drinks included. I am peeking out the window regularly, and I notice a nice aurora visible over the wing as we fly over the polar region. A couple of hours before we arrive, a nice breakfast is served. Thank goodness I managed to get a couple of hours sleep in-between.

We have a 100 knot tailwind for most of the flight which saves us a full 45 minutes, so we end up arriving just over an hour late at 2:00pm local time.

October 14, 2008 – Tuesday – enroute Vancouver to London/Heathrow to Johannesburg

It is 3:45pm as I write this in Terminal 1 at Heathrow. We arrived at Terminal 3, so I had to catch a shuttle bus to Terminal 1 and clear security again. Terminal 3 is modern, but Terminal 1 is decrepit by comparison. I can’t find any Internet connections – even if I am willing to pay. All I can do is wait around. They don’t post the gate numbers until 30 minutes before boarding time. When I’m in strange airports, I like to find a gate early so I’m not rushed, but I can’t do that here. Posting to my blog will have to wait until I get to the hotel in Johannesburg.

JoeTourist: Victoria to Johannesburg &emdash; SAA A340 tail fin
SAA A340 tail fin at the gate at Johannesburg airport

The woman with the teddy bear shows up at the gate for my flight to Johannesburg. I hope she’s not on my safari! There are a few empty seats on this flight; however most people have spread out to take advantage of the extra space so they can stretch out and sleep. The rest of us make do with trying to get some rest in a single seat. South African Airways in-flight service is very good – the meals are tasty, the cabin crew gives us good service, and the aircraft appears to be brand new (unlike Air Canada). We depart on time, and arrive early – what more could one ask for from an airline?

Heathrow to Johannesburg flight map
Heathrow to Johannesburg flight map

I rest fitfully throughout the flight, but I flip open the window shade regularly to see what is visible outside. The Orion constellation is lying on its side and is a pretty sight despite the illumination from the full Moon. Toward dawn there is a beautiful sunrise over Southern Africa as I am served breakfast just before our landing. The man sitting beside me is from Mozambique, and regularly travels to/from Johannesburg since he is involved with airport equipment. He is returning from a training trip to London.

October 15, 2008 – Wednesday – Johannesburg

Despite arriving at Johannesburg airport a bit ahead of schedule, Derek from Wilderness Safaris is there to meet me this morning. He suggests I get some South African Rands from the ABM in the terminal, and then he puts me on the shuttle to the Mondior Concorde Hotel. It is only a 15 minute drive from the airport. This hotel is part of a larger gambling complex called The Emperors Palace, which is obviously a direct copy of Las Vegas – including all the shops, the fancy concourses, and of course the noise! The hotel is nice and quiet, and although they don’t have any non-smoking rooms available at 8:30am, I take a smoking room in the interest of getting to bed as quickly as possible.

JoeTourist: Johnannesburg &emdash; Emperors Palace Casino interior
Emperors Palace Casino interior

I sleep for four hours and then get up to walk around the casino this afternoon – they obviously took liberal use of the designs of Caesars Palace or the Venetian in Las Vegas. I have dinner this evening at Squisto Ristorante in the casino mall area. It is recommended by the desk clerk, since their own Oriana restaurant is closed. I ordered a Spanikopita (spinach & feta pie) to start and Pescatore (seafood) pasta as a main. They only have a red house wine – no selection, but it was good (not too dry). This place reminds me of the Venetian in Las Vegas, except the prices are about a third of the Venetian’s. This evening’s dinner cost about 180 Rand (CD$23) including two glasses of wine and tip.

This evening I have to repack my two bags, since I will be storing the large one at the Mondior Concorde hotel here in Johannesburg while I take the small bag on the Botswana Safari. I’ll leave my notebook computer and some of the bulkier stuff here. All I need is cameras, clothes and my more compact electronic technology while I’m off on safari. When I’m traveling in Northern Botswana we will be transferred between camps in small aircraft. The maximum dimension for a bag is only 9″x12″x24″ due to the small cargo holds of these aircraft. It’s a good thing I purchased a new backpack MEC Fast-Track Roller from Mountain Equipment Co-op. It is actually two bags in one: a rolling bag with a handle that also has shoulder straps, and a smaller over-the-shoulder bag that is…you guessed it, only 9″ high. The small bag is is the one I’m taking to Botswana.

Speaking of technology, my power adapters all work here on the 220v 50Hz power. The 2 prong conversion plug I brought along works fine. My Rogers cellphone works from here – I call home successfully to check in with the family. I expect the next time I can use my cellphone will be when I return to Johannesburg on Oct 25th, since I’ll be staying in remote bush camps most of the next 12 days. Internet is not free from the Mondior Concorde hotel, but I purchase a low cost plan and the wireless connection works fine from my room. I post an update to my JoeTourist blog, and I also post a few preliminary photos on my Flickr space before going back to bed.

Tomorrow I start my safari adventure by flying to Livingston, Zambia!