Friday, March 6, 2009

Past Nata

There are few villages in the 500km north of Francistown and only one in the 300km between Nata and Kazungula Ferry, the border crossing. Leaving Nata, the first road sign one sees, about 500m out of town, is a sign that warns about animals. Be particularly careful at night, it says.

We had been warned throughout Botswana of this area of road, and questioned about how we would deal with animals. "Do you have a gun?" was the standard question, followed by assertions that the road was riddled with elephants, lions, and buffalo. "15km out of town there are elephants," we were told.

The scenery in this part of Botwana had changed. The rest of the country up to here had been flat (or at least a constant uphill with maybe a single hill or so in one day), with grassland and shrubland, the small thorny shrubs. Just south of Nata we had seen some full grown trees, but at Nata, near the salt flats, we encountered palm trees and open grassland.

This stretch of road was very nice. There were several stretches with horrific potholes that had caused bent and broken axles and flats in several of the semis we saw...these stretches deterred most traffic from using this route and were navigable by bicycle and only lasted a few km before relatively smooth sailing. The road was narrow, two shoulder-less lanes, like a small county road in Wisconsin. The veldt was close on both sides of the road, and we were soon surrounded again by the shrub land of the veldt...though these shrubs were taller than the ones in southern Botswana and eventually began to grow into trees even further north.

I did worry a bit about the lions and hoped we wouldn't see any, but I was not too concerned all the same, as lions like to do their hunting at night, don't prefer humans (you don't hear too many stories about human-eating lions, especially with all the other tasty game out there), and probably don't hang around the roads much.

We were excited to see elephants, and elephants we indeed saw: elephants crossing the road, elephants eating branches, elephants making loud and weird and prehistoric noises. Our mid-Western raised boys compared the number of elephants we saw each of the three days we rode on this road to the number of whitetail deer they see in Wisconsin. We saw elephants, zebras, giraffes, and baboons. We even wandered off the road into the veldt at one point to try to get closer and take better pictures of a group of 11 giraffe, picking our way through the poky yellow grass and only sort of keeping an eye out for snakes.

Our first day riding a big strong tailwind picked us up and blew us 65 km in three hours. It rained on us and then left us, with a sun to dry us all off. It left us near a cell phone repeater tower, not far from the road, where we decided to spend the an compound with a 2m tall fence with razorwire on the top. Fortunately for us the compound wasn't even locked, just closed with a little bit of twisted wire. And I definately slept better in that compound than I would have out of it, for on the short (~50m) access road to the gate of the compound, there in the fine sand, were a bunch of prints from a large cat, and soon after entering the compound we saw several large elephants next to the gate (you have to be careful at night in the bush as an elephant can walk right over you without thinking twice). The other nice thing about the compound was the ladder to the cellphone repeater tower. The ladder went all the way up to the top, which was ~200ft up from the ground. I didn't climb up, but the others did and had a fabulous view of the surrounding area and even climbed up early the next morning to experience the sunset from a bird's eye view.

Another tidbit to add: the land through Botswana was flat, especially north of Francistown. On the way to Francistown the road was flat but we were climbing. After Francistown and especially north of Nata the road was just flat, no rise, no fall. When we crossed into Zambia we began to see more trees with green foliage (instead of the thorn trees in Botswana) and more hills, but the land is still relatively flat and has been since Bloemfontein, South Africa).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Victoria Falls.

"You will get wet," Gustav was telling us. "It doesn't matter what you wear. I always laugh when I see the tourists wearing plastic bags and will get wet. I promise you."

Gustav decided to take us to the Falls. We piled into the back of his powder blue pickup (the backie, they call it here), and jostled around as we drove through the pot-hole ridden dirt roads to the main road. We followed the main road past the Spar strip mall, for about 8km. The parking lot for the Falls is small. There are about twenty or so permanent stalls for people to sell the wooden and painted trinkets and souvenirs that they sell in the ethnic sections of Pier 1, etc. These stalls seem cobbled together of temporary materials, as corrugated tin (or some soft, flimsy metal), scrawny poles, and thatch. The parking lot and visitor center is as you would expect from some small, out of the way tourist destination in the states, and though the traffic is probably a bit more brisk, it is not busy nor does it really feel crowded...most of the time, the only people we saw was ourselves, and then we would pass some locals, and then would be alone some more. At the end we ran into a large group of 25 tourists with the pastiest looking legs you ever saw, all covered with those plastic garbage bags.

There is a park entrance fee. The locals (any Zambian resident) pays ~2600 kwacha to enter the park, or about $0.50, and the foreigner pays $10. We forked over $50, using up the last of the money we had taken out of the ATM to pay this fee, and then walked through the little office onto a rough concrete path.

Immediately the path opens onto a view of the falls. The view happened upon us all of a sudden, an opening in the trees and there it was: a white torrent of water. It was very picturesque: there was enough water flow for the rush to be white and full, but low enough that we could still see the rocks pushing the river to this side or that in the fall. The fall is deep and the drop appears minute you are in a dripping rainforest and the next there is open air and a straight drop down, opening up an impassible space between you and the water.

We walked along the path, which follows the edge of the drop opposite the water fall. The first opening I took a couple pictures but after that I hid my camera in a ziploc bag because there was so much water I didn't trust my rainjacket to keep it dry and I definitely wasn't about to try to take a picture. Within a minute or two we were all completely soaked. My rainjacket helped some, but the water still creeped in around my wrists and through my hood. In the rainforest, the water came mostly down, but when we came to a clearing and looked over the falls, there was a mist everywhere. And the water wasn't all falling was splashing up! From all directions!

The mist, the white mist that was not mild and gentle the way that a fog is, but blinding in the way that when you turn the hose onto the mist setting and spray it in your face is blinding. And the flow was a bit variable...sometimes you could peer in one direction and through the mist to the waterfall, the sound thundering around you the whole time, the next second the mist would change and would start coming into your eyes and you had to turn away. It was fun to follow the narrow, two person-wide concrete path. The path wound around through the rainforest (it is only rainforest right at the falls, where the mist feeds the plants that like it...the rest of the area is similar to other parts of the area in that there is a distinct wet season and dry season where the dry season is very dry), where the way was clear except for a bit of mist but mostly rain just dripping gently but persistently from the foliage above and a constant torrent covering the trail and running along your feet. Then a few more steps and there was a lookout, with the white and the gorge and the thunder. So much water and the fall was so wide (it is ~1km across).

There was so much power there, the kind of majesty that does not dull with modernity, where I felt myself to be inconsequential to stand its presence. Standing there, blinded beside the falls or dripping as I walked through the rainforest, it felt to me like the kind of place where unusual things could felt very alive, and separate from human invention. Magical, is how I think of it.


Here I am sitting in the internet cafe in Livingstone, Zambia. So much has happened since my last post that I am not sure where to begin as there are many stories crowding together, wanting to be told. I'll start with an update:

Orian flew out the other day to Boston. We dropped him off at the airport at around 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, October 4th, and his flight was scheduled to leave at 1 p.m. on that day. I received a call from him yesterday evening at 10:30 p.m. Zambian time (~3:30 p.m in Boston), saying that he had found our good friend Maria Luckyanova at her office and would be running errands.

Orian is in Boston for a final round of interviews for the Hertz Fellowship. I have heard that there are 50 applicants remaining and ~10 Fellowships will be given out. The Fellowship would be for Orian to pursue a degree and research at M.I.T. where he would like to study energy and transportation.

The four of us still in Africa--Minwah, Nate, Quinn, and myself--are staying with Gustav on his grandparents' farm. We call his grandparents Granny and Papa, and we often go over to their building where they sit all day chatting over tea and the paper at their table. Papa George started a crayfish farm in the area, and pioneered that type of aquaculture in this area, through correspondance with a professor at the University of Louisiana. The aquaculture and the rest of the farm are now in disrepair, as old age is preventing the Grubbs (Granny and Papa) from running the farm. They originally had 150 acres but in the past 7 years have sold all but 12 of those acres since they needed to money and were unable to farm them. Gustav has returned from England to help revive the farm and he hopes to focus primarily on aquaculture. He has been in Africa one month now (he grew up in the area but had been living in London-area for many years) and is getting a feel for the place and organizing the purchasing of supplies, such as a generator, and preparing to build larger pools and such.

The farm borders the Zambezi. We can see the tall trees that border the river from the building that Gustav has been sharing with us. He and Papa are always warning us away from the river, saying it is infested with crocodiles and hippos. "Don't mess with nature," he says. We have also been warned that the fields are infested with all types of poisonous mambas and cobras and pythons. As such, I have not ventured beyond the area just around the house. If I leave Africa without ever seeing a snake of this type I will not be sorry.

We ride down dirt roads and walk (or ride) over a footbridge with loose planks towards the main road. Livingstone is almost all on a single road and the airport is smaller than the CWA (Central Wisconsin Airport) near Orian's house in Wisconsin. We go mostly to a little strip mall, seemingly geared towards tourists, for our grocery and internet needs. From the footbridge we can see quite far, as the topography, though somewhat hilly, is predominately flat. And when we stand there, looking over the tops of the trees, a few kilometres away a mist rises from the greenery, and this is the falls, Victoria Falls, which we visited with Gustav a few days ago.

One of the interesting things about Africa is that nothing is really very cheap here. South African prices have been the cheapest so far, with food being two to three times cheaper than in the States. But when we got to Botswana and especially since entering Zambia, we have been astonished to find the food prices only a bit less than what we pay for food in the states, especially because many people here in Zambia live on less than $1/day. Here, a dollar will only buy you some mealie meal (mealie is what they call their course, not very sweet, white corn) or some fat cakes (the deep-fried bread mentioned in a previous post). Moreover, the prices for manufactured goods is also steep. A sort of trivial example is that we went to look for a chess/checkers set the other day. Gustav found one for ~50 000 kwacha (about $10 U.S.). The set was the cheapest set of Chinese-made plastic I have seen in a long time and could not be sold in the U.S. for more than $2, but that is how things are here...there is not much, what there is is often of comparitively cheap quality and make, and the rest cannot be had for love nor money; if you want something really bad you would have to order it overseas and then pay for the expense of having it shipped to you by post.

Our diet consists mainly of rice, pasta, canned baked beans, and pulses (lentils and split peas) as things that you make yourself are still affordable, say about $1-3/kg. I am just amazed at how expensive things are here...a small box (say 250g) of cereal is about $3-4. Who is buying this stuff? Not locals, because if we can't afford to pay that, then they also can't. It is so weird. I cringe every time I go to the grocery store and it makes me feel so frustrated, thinking of how sparse the diet of the typical local is. Papa George and Gustav say it is because nothing is made here...all the processed food is imported from South Africa and much of the produce is. How do people live?