Tag Archives: Africa

What’s it like to be traveling again?

We’re excited and happy to be traveling again, but as with any major life change, there is some trepidation as we adjust to our new routine.  After the demands of preparing for this trip (in parallel with us both completing in Ironman Canada at the end of August) followed by the inevitable last-minute rush, it’s great to finally be on the road.

It was terrific to be met at the airport in Vienna by our friends Sue and Martin, then whisked off to a nearby campground for a delicious meal and far too much to drink for a couple of dehydrated, jet-lagged travelers.

Sue on Martin on train in Vienna
The best photo I have of Martin!

 

In some ways, it’s a relief from the demands of being at home (as many ‘demands’ as people without jobs have, yet which somehow still constantly exceed our expectations).  Instead of our ‘at home’ to-do list, we now have a ‘traveling’ to-do list.  But, they say a change is as good
as a rest…

We now have a very different routine, which is inevitably some subset and combination of:

  1. get up, put away the bed and bedding, personal hygiene, get dressed
  2. prepare, eat, and clean up breakfast
  3. prepare the RV for travel
  4. navigate and drive
  5. visit sights or attractions
  6. do activities (like walking, running, cycling, hiking, etc.)
  7. prepare, eat, and clean up lunch (often a picnic)
  8. find a place to camp
  9. shop for food
  10. drink alcohol
  11. prepare, eat, and clean up dinner
  12. read and write
  13. take care of personal business (e.g. banking)
  14. plan our next day

Not that we’re complaining.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. We consider ourselves very fortunate to be doing what we’re doing and where we’re doing it.  This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  We’re very grateful and full of anticipation.

Signoff

Looking back on our trip, some things seem surreal. Did we really do that? We’re already starting to forget some of the details of the things we experienced. We’re glad that we have many photos, a journal, and this blog to help us remember.

People we meet ask us, “What was your favourite country”? We find this impossible to answer. Rather than a particular country, it’s been more about the individual experiences that we’ve had and the people that we’ve met. We started to compile a highlight list, but the first cut had over fifty items on it! Trimming it down to a top ten list would be very difficult.

This is the first time we’ve written a blog, and it’s been great. It was more work than we expected, but definitely worth the effort. We thought that it would be a way for family and friends to stay connected with us, and it has been that. It has also been a terrific way for us to stay connected with you. We’ve been able to share our experiences, thoughts, and emotions and get feedback as we go. It’s like you’ve come along on the trip with us. This has been a great comfort at times, especially for Diane. It’s ironic that while we’ve been travelling we’ve had more interaction with some people (generally those who don’t live near Vancouver) than we would probably have had if we’d been at home. We’d like to keep up these communications when we get home.

We’ve met many people while traveling. In a few cases, this has developed into friendships. We hope to maintain and enhance these going forward, rather than see them fade over time. We will do our best to not let the pressures of day-to-day life get in the way.

We are planning to do some presentations about our trip. We have lots of stories and photos that we’d like to share, many of which didn’t make it into the blog. We’ll be sure to let you all know when and where.

Looking back, Diane was surprised how many times she’s voluntarily done things that were beyond her comfort zone (canyoneering in Petra, rock climbing in Wadi Rum, tracking black rhino on foot in Zimbabwe, riding motorcycles in the Himalaya, spelunking in Laos, etc.) For a while she kept asking, “How did I get myself into this, again?” In these situations the expression “Bloody Hell” unconsciously become a new part of her vocabulary. Does she regret having done them? No. But would she do them again if she had the chance? Probably. In fact, Diane has already said that she’d be open to doing another trip like this in the future.

People are already asking, “What are you going to do next?” We have ideas, but no specific plans yet. We came home with a to-do list of over 100 items, which includes both the urgent things necessary to move forward with our lives, as well as making decisions about our future. We definitely want to travel again – South America, Central America, Europe, Australia, Canada and The United States. So many amazing places and so little time.

Travelling has been an education. We learned about the world, humanity, culture, religion, relationships, and most importantly, about ourselves. There is much more to see and experience, and we still have a lot to learn.

We feel truly fortunate to have had this opportunity. Thank you for all your emails and comments along with way. Sharing our journey with you made it even more rewarding.

Your humble bloggers,
Diane and Patrick King

On Toileting

Be aware that the following article is colourful, and may offend the sensibilities of the faint of heart. Or, you might just laugh your a** off.

As is the case with many travel epics, it has come to this, the point when the many exaltations of a grand journey are set aside temporarily, to focus on the simpler aspects of day-to-day living — sleeping, eating, and the subject of this article.

In addition to the many varieties of toilets we encounter, the complexities of their use are a regular topic of conversation among travelers. Here are some of the considerations.

Dirty toilets are very common. It’s quite common to hover or squat over filthy toilets while treading on urine soaked floors, even in the ladies room. You know that the floor isn’t clean when the Indian women roll up their skirts before entering to avoid them touching the ground. Patrick knows that it’s really bad when he can hear Diane dry heaving from next door.

A purse or bag is not an asset in these bathrooms, as there is nowhere to hang it. Because toilet paper is almost never provided, you need to bring that into the room discretely, and somehow manage to keep it off the floor during the whole procedure.

In most hotels, the whole bathroom is the shower. There is no tub, shower stall, or shower curtain. When the whole room gets wet it takes a long time to dry, so as a result, from the time we first use the shower the whole bathroom usally remains wet for the entire duration of our stay. So every time you go in to the bathroom your feet get wet, which is especially annoying if you’re going in the middle of the night and return to your bed afterwards. If instead you wear your shoes or sandals in, the floor turns into a swamp as the dirt from your shoes mixes with the water on the floor. The separate shower common in North America is definitely preferable.

We are often tested by cheap toilets that won’t flush with sufficient vigour as to get the job done. After several attempts, when confronted with a persistent floater, we’ve learned that you can fill a bucket and pour it into the bowl from a few feet above the rim. It works great.

The squat toilet is something that takes skill and experience to master. Not having the necessary flexibility requires a precarious balancing act on the balls of one’s feet. This is complicated by a slippery floor as you try not to pee on your feet. Lacking the necessary suppleness, stability must be augmented by touching something, but as minimally as possible. Diane prefers the one-handed water ski technique, while Patrick favours the two-armed elbow brace. The most sensitive part of the operation occurs when removing segments of toilet paper, as this normally requires two hands, making it a repetitive high-risk maneuver.

On a train, the difficulty level is further increased. Not only is everything stainless steel, wet, and at a minimum slick, but sometimes slimy, but the motion of the train makes balancing much more difficult. For some reason, the small bathrooms on the trains are exceedingly warm. Returning from the lou, it appears as if one has spent the last ten minutes doing squat-thrusts in a sauna. It often requires a cool drink and an extended period of recovery.

Another problem with train bathrooms is that you’re not supposed to go when the train is at a station, because everything just falls out onto the tracks below. It seems that more often than not, one just gets things moving when the train starts to slow. Some things can’t be stopped once started, so it would be helpful if all train restrooms were equipped with countdown timers until the next station. A good strategy is to only go in when you’re really good and ready.

Another challenge we face is the ‘pay and use toilet’. We find these everywhere, but especially in bus and train stations and sometimes in cities or parks. The concept is presumably that the small fee paid is used for the maintenance and cleaning of the facility. However, almost without exception, they are neither maintained nor clean. The attendant’s role seems be only fee collection. There is sometimes a mop in the vicinity, but usually in a dark, wet corner where it lays untouched. Even if it is used, it’s so dirty that it would just serve to spread the grime around. On a matter or principle, Diane refuses to pay at the ‘pay and use’ toilet unless they’re clean, and they’re never clean.

Every more perplexing is that there is often a difference in the fee depending on what kind of deposit you plan to make. For men this can be monitored by whether you use a urinal or toilet, but for women it appears to be strictly a matter of trust. Because it costs more, it is doubtful whether the women ever admit to anything more than a quick pee. Another problem is that you don’t always know in advance. Sometimes you’d like to keep your options open. And what if the anticipated result doesn’t materialize? Can you get your money back?

Some toilets in Africa and India are equipped with a metal bracket under the rear of the toilet seat that is connected by a tube to a separate tap on the wall. It appears to be a sharp piece of tin that is a cheap add-on. For months the usefulness of this device eluded us, and we were unwilling to risk putting it into practice. Eventually Patrick gave it a go. Through a tiny jet, it emits a horizontal stream of water so piercing that it could cut steel. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how calloused your sphincter is), because of its location below the seat, it doesn’t actually make contact when you’re seated. To experience its shocking effect, it appears to be necessary to lift the seat up, and then re-squat into the naked bowl. Small gyrations are then necessary to get coverage, but it is pretty important that this be done without making contact, requiring both strength and balance. Perhaps he was doing it wrong, but this certainly seemed to be an advanced and potentially risky maneuver given the cleanliness of the bowl and the razor sharp metal edge below.

Things are further complicated by the question of how to know when you’re finished? There is no tactile feedback as with the manual method. Should one stop based on feel, which would require greater sensitivity than we seem to possess, or is the exercise merely terminated after a reasonable time period. If so, how long? We may need further training to be able to maintain a squat for that time period.

Another issue is that the water emitted from this torture device is of unknown temperature and cleanliness. It would be nice to run it for awhile first, but this would result in a fountain as it ricochets off the front of the bowl. And what is one supposed to do in the meantime – stand up (ill advised), or maintain a parallel squat next to the bowl?

Unfortuantely our guidebook is silent on these topics.

Africa

Here’s a quick summary of our last few weeks in Africa.

After four flights over two days, we made it back to Arusha, a town in Northern Tanzania, which was the base for our next two weeks. We met our friends from Canada who came to join us on vacation (Werner, Henny, Kevin, Dave, Cliff, Adam, and James) at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, with a sign reading Black Chicken Climbing Team (derived from the name of our cycling club) in a safari vehicle complete with a cooler full of beer. We spent the next six days on an amazing safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Some of you may know one of our friends, who by now are back in Canada, in which case you’ve already heard more than we can write here.

Some highlights were:

  • the first morning when we were awoken by a lion roaring inside our campsite
  • the annual wildebeest and zebra migration (did you know that the wildebeest and the gnu are the same animal?)
  • watching two female lions stalking a herd of zebra
  • an early morning safari where the roads were so slippery and flooded that keeping the vehicles upright was a challenge
  • seeing a pride of lions sitting on a raised outcropping of rocks looking out over the savannah (just like in the movie ‘The Lion King’)
  • amazing sunsets
  • the Masai people, with their traditional villages, livestock, and clothing
  • watching a dust tornado on the savannah
  • experiencing the amazing wildlife, including ‘the big five’
  • our group’s lion and wildebeest vocal impressions
  • the night that we almost ran into an elephant on the way to the toilet!

After a day of rest in Arusha, our group started a seven day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At over 19,000 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. We attempted the Machame route and were fortunate to have very good weather.

At midnight on the fifth day we left our high camp to head for the summit. We climbed for six hours through the night, arriving at the top just before sunrise on June 11th, which was Patrick’s Mom Doreen’s birthday.

Everyone made it to the top successfully, experiencing only the usual symptoms of high altitude (headache, nausea, and in Patrick’s case vomiting near the summit – tales of which have no doubt been exaggerated by those who’ve already returned to Canada). Highlights included:

  • the amazing views from Shira campsite
  • climbing the Baranko wall, called ‘your cold breakfast’ by our guide Dismas (not sure about the spelling)
  • toasted sandwiches for lunch on the day of our summit attempt, and french fries the day before
  • seeing the porters carry huge loads
  • special treatment for married couples (our gear was always placed in our tents, but the single guys had to get their own)
  • our head guide Brendan singing as we climbed through the night
  • the ‘queen cakes’ in our packed lunches, which should only be eaten with butter and a gallon of water
  • warm soup with every dinner!

We spent then next few days relaxing on the island of Zanzibar, the famous ‘spice islands’ off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Despite some rain, we had a good time. We went on a terrific snorkeling trip, even though the number of people on the boat and the weather at the start initially indicated that it might be otherwise. Cliff couldn’t get over the fact that huge beers were under $3 Canadian. The seafood was terrific, as were daily happy hours (2-for-1) at Che’s. We spent our last two nights on Zanzibar in Stone Town, an amazing historical city. Here we saw our friends off to the airport and then flew back to Nairobi where we spent our last two days in Africa with Diane’s Aunt Norma and her family, and Diane’s other Aunt Beulah who was also visiting from Canada.

Our last four months in Africa have been incredible. We visited nine countries, if you don’t count Egypt (which felt more like the Middle East). The sights and activities were amazing, but it is the people that we met along the way that we’ll remember the most. We also want to say a special word of thanks to our Canadian friends that came to join us for a few weeks in Tanzania and to Norma and Wayne (Diane’s Aunt and Uncle in Nairobi) for hosting us during our time in Kenya.

Observations about East and Southern Africa

  • People have a vague understanding of Canada, and a generally positive impression. Some think it is part of the US. Many know that it is cold there, and can quote the city names of ‘Toronto’ and ‘Vancouver’, even though they have no idea where these are.
  • The majority of the people are Christians, the result of a century of successful missionary activity that continues to this day.
  • Many of the businesses are controlled by South Asians, primary East Indians. They drive much of the economic activity, including import/export and retail. They often employ African people, and there appears to be a love-hate relationship between the two groups.
  • Women are generally not empowered. They do the majority of household and farming work, all while carrying a child on their back and with toddlers scrambling around their feet.
  • Education is highly prized. In most countries, elementary school education is free, but you usually must be able to afford the uniforms and school supplies, so many children do not attend.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. Funerals are common, and many children are raising their siblings.
  • Life expectancy is generally low. The combination of high infant mortality rates, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unclean water, and malaria mean that the average life expectancy in these countries is between 38 and 48 years.
  • African politics generally follows the approach of the British parliamentary system. However, in most countries corruption , partisanship, and patronage are widespread. The newspapers constantly report it, but there is rarely any information about perpetrators being punished. Governments and politicians will often go to extreme lengths to remain in office (e.g. by removing or extending term limits, or rigging elections). By the time an individual or party loses an election, or is otherwise thrown out or overthrown, they need to have feathered their nests enough that they don’t need to work again, and can leave the country if necessary, because the new government will likely not be fair to them.
  • The quest for money seems to dominate the lives of most African people. This is really no different than in Canada, but because the amounts of money are relatively much smaller, it is often surprising the extent to which they go to earn just a little bit of money. e.g. a woman with a small child will sit out in the hot sun all day selling peanuts, to earn a total of a dollar (or less). Sellers will wander around a bus depot all day trying to sell a single item like a pair of shoes or a flashlight (not one type of product, but one specific item).
  • Lack of capital is an issue. Many people have the work ethic and ingenuity, but lack the money to initiate an activity that would allow them to support themselves (e.g. buying hand tools or a pump to farm, a bicycle/motorcycle/car to operate as a taxi, or chickens to sell eggs). A variety of groups are working to filling this void by offering micro-financing.
  • Almost all the men love soccer, which they call ‘football’. Most boys and young men play football. In addition to their national team, they follow the English Premiership very closely. Many men wear the jersey of their favourite team and decorate their vehicle with stickers, etc. Most buses and mini-buses display the name or logo of a Premiership team. Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams, and Patrick is often asked which team he supports.
  • The people of East and Southern Africa are generally friendly and pleasant. They appear to like foreigners and are usually willing to help out in any way they can. Sometimes they want so badly to be helpful and to not be rude, that they’ll give you information about things they’re not sure about.

Okavango Delta

We entered Botswana from Zimbabwe and traveled west across the north of the country to the small city of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. This area was highly recommended to us by our friends Barb and Terry, who traveled here many years ago. Unfortunately, Botswana is not a discount travel destination. In fact, the whole country specifically markets itself as the high-end safari destination relative to the rest of Eastern and Southern African. As a result, most people arrive in Maun on pre-arranged trips, then immediately fly in to luxury lodges in the famous Okavango Delta. We had nothing arranged in advance, which is not recommended, but were hoping to take advantage of last minute rates at the end of the shoulder season.

The Okavango Delta is a 16,000 square kilometer maze of lagoons, channels, and islands. It is fed by the Okavango River, which runs 1430 kilometers from Angola, across Namibia, and into northwest Botswana, the only part of this flat dry country that is lush and green. The Delta supports a wide variety of wildlife, which move around in response to the changing water levels of the delta.

We decided to splurge with a couple of days at a luxury lodge. Somehow, this morphed into four days and three nights at two different luxury lodges (requiring three different flights) – the most expensive days of travel we’ve had, not just on this trip, but ever.

From the Maun airport, we flew about 35 minutes on a small Cessna to a private dirt airstrip near Shinde Camp. Diane had anticipated neither the small size of the plane nor the turbulence.


We were greeted by our guide in a safari vehicle, and immediately set out on an hour long game drive before lunch. In that short time we saw warthogs, giraffe, several different times of antelope, three lions, and a bull elephant that threatened to charge our vehicle in what is known as a ‘mock charge’ (the one that proceeds the ‘real charge’).


When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the staff singing and dancing. We were shown around the beautiful open air facility, where all of the lounges and dining hall are on raised wooden platforms looking out onto the grasslands or waterways. This exclusive facility accommodates a maximum of 16 guests, and there are more staff than visitors. We stayed two nights in a ‘tent’, which was more like a luxury hotel suite. Inside was a king sized bed with white linens, a seating area, and a full bathroom including shower. Each morning we were woken by tea and coffee delivered to our room. Each time we left the room it was cleaned and reconfigured (bed made, mosquito nets up or down, windows and blinds opened or closed, fresh linens, floor washed). Each evening, while turning our beds down, a decanter of brandy and two glasses were set out on the night table.

Each day, in addition to three terrific meals, an afternoon siesta, afternoon tea, and an evening socializing on the deck around a campfire (also known as ‘bush television’), we participated in two activities of our choosing. We could choose between a game drive in an open safari vehicle, or a variety of activities in the Delta — a power boat trip, fishing trip, or a makoro trip. A makoro is a flat bottomed dugout canoe that is traditionally used in the delta, poled by a ‘poler’ through the shallow water. Our three hour makoro trip was just after sunrise, very quiet and relaxing.

Here is Patrick trying his hand at the makoro, causing the camp manager much concern.

We also went fishing in the Delta. See Diane’s catch below.

Note that Patrick’s fish was slightly larger, but the difference was not distinguishable to the naked eye.

At Shinde it seemed that almost every activity (makoro trip, vehicle safari, or getting into bed at night) was accompanied by a hot water bottle, something that Diane really enjoys. Each day at sunset we would pause, wherever we were (land or water), for ‘sundowners’, usually a couple of glasses of wine and some appetizers. This is a great tradition which we should consider adopting at home!

Of course, at these camps the bar was always open. We spent one afternoon enjoying gin and tonics in true colonial fashion. And the service was excellent. Patrick mentioned the first afternoon that he enjoyed a gin martini, with both the glass and gin chilled beforehand. Four hours later, upon our return from some sunset fishing, he was greeted by a manager holding a chilled martini. Impressive.

Because we were situated on the edge of the delta, we were challenged by some difficult water crossings in our vehicle. The Toyota Landcruiser diesel performed amazingly well, even when the entire engine and hood were completely under water, at which point, the driver and all passengers were balanced precariously on the armrests because both the vehicle and the seats were under water!

We spent the next two days at Lebala Camp, where we had an even more amazing ‘tent’ (this one with a double shower, double sink, and claw foot tub). Our tent was located on the edge of a hippo pool, and at night we were surrounded by hippos feeding. Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa in terms of human casualties (they feel very threatened when out of the water), so we were not allowed to leave our tent after dark without an escort. The deep grunts of the hippos around us at night were disconcerting, and our only protection was the seemingly implausible information that hippos have short legs, and therefore couldn’t climb the few stairs up to the raised platform where we slept. The only challenge was getting to our tent after dinner, and one night we had to detour around a stubborn hippo that was blocking the path.

Overall, we had an amazing four days in the Okavango Delta. Definitely a different caliber of safari than we’d enjoyed to date, and almost certainly different than the budget safari we had planned with our Canadian friends who would soon be joining us in Tanzania.

Whatever happens, don’t run

Our train ride took us to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the nearest city to Matabo National
Park, known to the locals as ‘Matopos’. This park is home to one of the best collections of San rock paintings, many of which are over 20,000 years old.


The San are better known as ‘bushmen’, the same ones found in the Kalahari Desert (which covers much of Botswana), and featured in the movie ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’. The San are a small-statured people, who traditionally lived in the brushy flat landscape that extends across all of Botswana. They are nomadic hunter-gathers who speak in a distinctive sounding language that utilizes lots of clicking sounds. The San have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years, and often dwelled among the many large bounders that litter the landscape. In many of these sites, they painted amazingly accurate pictures of animals and people, which have persisted to this day among the sheltered areas.

We came to Matabo to see the rock paintings, but we got more than we bargained for. Because the park is fifty kilometers outside of town and requires a 4×4 to get around, we made arrangements to go with a guide named Andy from Black Rhino Safaris. Andy is Zimbabwean, born and raised. His family lives in Zimbabwe, and they have survived the recent hardships that have devastated the country. Andy is a self-declared ‘professional hunter’. These days he is primarily a guide on photographic safaris, rather than hunting safaris, but he has killed at least one of almost everything there is to kill in Africa.

In addition to the rock paintings, the other reason that people come to Matabo National Park is to see the rhinos. Andy said that he could take us, ‘to see some rock paintings in the early morning, then once that was out of the way, we could go looking for rhino’. It sounded like a good combination to us, but we really hadn’t anticipated what was involved.

Just before noon, Andy stopped the vehicle, and called us out to look at the dirt road. He showed us where there were fresh rhino tracks. You could see the pattern from their skin imprinted into the soft sand. He told us that, ‘Several of them laid here during the night or early morning.’ At this point, he got his binoculars and rifle from the truck, and we set out on foot, hunting for rhino.

Andy was an impressive tracker, following sometimes imperceptible tracks on soft and hard ground, through the grass and the bush. He turned and twisted, gesturing with his arms as he followed the smallest of indicators. He showed us how to tell the difference between white rhino and black rhino tracks. He stopped to feel their dung and told us how old it was (based on how crusty and how warm). He could tell the age of a rhino track by assessing the overlapping tracks from other animals, and whether these other mammals, birds, and bugs were nocturnal or not. This guy was a real African bush man, right out of the old safari movies.

As we entered the brush, he stopped to whisper the only safety instructions, “Walk in single file, don’t talk, and whatever happens, don’t run.” That was it. Patrick wondered whether this should perhaps have been discussed previously, allowing time for a few questions. But Andy was hot on the track, so that was all we got.

After about twenty minutes, we heard a noise, and peering into the dense brush, Andy said that there were two white rhino in there. We saw only leaves and branches. Nothing resembling a rhino. He signaled us to wait while he went ahead to investigate. Before he left us, he whispered, “If things go really wrong, climb a tree”. Diane looked around, and noticed a severe lack trees that looked both climbable and rhino-proof. Patrick wondered how he was supposed to get to a tree without running.

From fifteen meters away, making signals like the Special Forces, Andy indicated that there were four rhinos, and that we should follow him. We circled around the rhinos, trying to find a vantage point where we could see them through the foliage. We found a spot with a good view of one rhino, about twenty meters away. The others were somewhere in the bush, and we kept looking around and behind us just in case. Presumably Andy knew where they were. Andy indicated that Patrick could step forward to take pictures of the visible rhino.


Here is the only rhino picture that turned out. In case you’re wondering, the rhino is facing the left, and its head is obscured by foliage. Although you can’t see it in this picture, Patrick was surprised at how long and sharp looking its horn was. Apparently the horns of rhinos in captivity get worn down, but in the wild they can be up to 4 feet long!

When Diane adjusted her stance to get a better view stepping on a twig in the process, the rhino snapped his (or perhaps her, we have no idea) head up to stare straight at us. After a few seconds, the rhino started to run directly towards us, accompanied by two others that appeared from nowhere.

We stepped back, and Andy started to yell. As the three rhinos closed in on us, his volume level increased. There was the slightest hint of desperation in his voice as he reached his crescendo. He also shouted to us, “Don’t Run!”, which was perfectly timed, as that was exactly what we wanted to do. Andy raised his rifle and removed the safety. Diane melted into bush beside us, trying to get very small. The rhinos were running at us full speed, and were within twenty five feet. At what seemed the last possible moment, they swerved around us to our left.

Afterwards, Andy asked if we were OK. He apologized and said, “That’s not what normally happens.” He also said, “Another two steps closer and I would have fired a warning shot.” Looking back, Patrick seriously doubts whether there was enough time to warn the rhinos, and still get off another shot with his bolt action rifle if they didn’t stop. Andy surmised that these white rhinos, which are typically more docile, felt trapped between us and a creek behind them (that he wasn’t aware of), and perhaps couldn’t see us clearly enough to know where we were and how many of us. Rhinos apparently have poor eyesight from straight on, with eyes located on the sides of their head and large, especially pointy looking horns blocking their forward vision. Andy then said, “I think this would be a good time to go for lunch. We can track some more rhino in the afternoon.”

We had lunch overlooking a hippo pond, surrounded by a troop of overly bold baboons. After a short drive, we again started walking to find rhinos. Diane was definitely torn. On the one hand, she hoped to see more rhino, but she was thoroughly afraid to do so. Perhaps we could find some well-behaved white rhino and view them from a distance?

Andy explained that we were heading into an area frequented by black rhino. They are smaller, faster, and much more aggressive than white rhinos. Andy said that if the rhinos that ran at us in the morning had been black rhinos, he would have needed to shoot. Apparently when black rhinos feel threatened, they charge first, and ask questions later. Actually, they don’t ask questions. Patrick wonders which of the three he would have shot, and whether the other two would have noticed before they impaled us.

We were walking up a dry creek bed. Andy said, “We’ll circle around through the rocks on the right. That’s where the rhinos often sleep”. Patrick was hoping that they slept there at night, and not during the afternoon, assuming that black rhinos would be even more aggressive when woken prematurely from their afternoon nap.

Andy stopped and said, “Can you smell them”? He then loaded another two gigantic bullets into his rifle, and said, “I always like to have a couple extra in the magazine when I’m going into black rhino territory”. Diane and Patrick looked at each other with raised eyebrows. We wove between the closely spaced rocks and trees, and Andy showed us the flattened places where the rhino rest. The terrain was gradually narrowing, and we dropped back down to the river bed. Later Andy told another guide that he was pretty sure the rhinos were there, but didn’t feel safe proceeding into such close quarters.

So we walked back to the vehicle and drove a short distance to an open area filled with eight foot high grass. Does grass even grow that high in Canada? We pushed through the grass following the path of least resistance, where other animals (presumably rhino) had passed before. Patrick was thinking of a joke:

Q. How do you find a rhino in the tall grass?
A. You know it when you feel it.

We didn’t find any rhino in the grass, but afterwards Andy said, “I hate walking in that tall grass. You never know what you’re going to find, until a rhino tears you a new anus”.

Unfortunately and fortunately we didn’t find any more rhinos in the afternoon. But we did have the most exhilarating day of art viewing we’ve ever had.

The Train Trip

We promised you no more bus stories, so this is a story about the train trip that we took in the last 24 hours…

We wanted to travel from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, both on the western side of Zimbabwe. The options were a five hour bus trip leaving at 4 AM from somewhere out of town, or an overnight train leaving at 7PM from the train station only five minutes walk from our guesthouse. We asked several local people about the train, and they confirmed that it was safe, despite our guidebook’s comment that accidents are common. We chose the train because of the ease of access, better departure time, avoidance of the cost of one night’s accommodation, and the positive experience we’d had on the overnight train in Tanzania. The train trip was scheduled to take 14 hours, and to arrive at 9 AM in Bulawayo.

We arrived at the train station just before dark, and waited until the list was posted showing which people were assigned to which saloon (i.e. car) and compartment. We were assigned to saloon 1121 compartment C, which a 1st class ‘coupe’, a sleeping compartment for two people only. It sounded wonderful.

When we boarded the train, we found that almost all the lights in the car were not functioning. The passageway was completely dark, making it difficult to find out compartment. Our compartment was one of only two that had lights, while the other 1st class passengers sat in complete darkness. Our compartment had an intermittent smell of smoke and urine. The lower bench, where we both sat and Diane slept, was missing much of its upholstery, so dirty foam was visible instead. Above the upper bunk was a small storage compartment which we closed after discovering that it contained bones, hopefully from a previous passenger’s dinner and not from a previous passenger. There was a small medicine cabinet above what was once a fold down sink, both of which we were afraid to open. Patrick opened them and looked anyway.

The two African men in coupe D had no lights, and we struck up a conversation with one of them. He was a businessman from Zambia, with good English and a laid back attitude. He was traveling in Zimbabwe as part of his work in import/export (i.e. smuggling). Apparently cooking oil is much cheaper in Zimbabwe than in Zambia due to the fact it can be obtained from South Africa duty-free. By purchasing it in bulk in Zimbabwe, and then smuggling it into Zambia without paying duties, he makes a tidy profit.

There were signs posted on the train like ‘Preserve your Heritage, Don’t Damage the Trains” and “No Smoking”. Our chain-smoking conductor came by to check our tickets. In 1st class, they normally provide sheets, blankets, and pillows to passengers, then rent any extra ones to those in second class for $1 US per person. On our trip, they had no sheets, but we were given two blankets and a pillow each. We used our own sleeping sheets and the blankets, which were just warm enough when the temperature dropped significantly at night.

You could tell that our National Railway of Zimbabwe (NRZ) train was, in colonial times, a beautiful thing, but it has seen better days. In 1st class, in addition to no lights and sparse upholstery, the cars were also lacking many pieces of window glass, all the door handles, and any form of maintenance or cleaning. Our compartment and the passageway were dirty. The toilets had no seats, no longer flushed, and like other trains in Africa, were basically just a hole opening down through the floor onto the tracks. There was no running water in the bathrooms, but there was a sign asking people not to occupy the bathroom for more than 10 minutes, which was not necessary in our case, as we tried to get out of there as quickly as possible, without touching anything.

In the morning, Patrick walked down a few cars to check out 3rd Class. Between the cars, all the doors were missing. In 1st class, the doors to the exterior did not shut (due to the missing door handles), but in 3rd class, they were completely gone. The ground rushed by outside, and the wind poured into the cars. In 3rd class, in addition to the missing doors, there were was no glass in any of the windows. The passengers were huddled on benches under blankets, wearing toques and gloves trying to stay warm as the wind blasted through the cars. This was definitely not a pleasant way to travel, especially when you’re not used to the cold. 3rd Class costs $5 US per person and 1st Class costs $8.

The train was running late, and we were expecting to arrive around 10 AM, when the train stopped unexpectedly on the outskirts of Bulawayo. The conductor wandered by to let us know that the train had run out of petrol. What? Lawnmowers run out of gas. Gas barbeques run out of gas. Occasionally, Patrick’s car runs out of gas. But trains do not run out of gas. Or at least they shouldn’t.


People started to disembark from the train, and stood beside the tracks in the tall grass. Patrick walked the length of the train, up one side and down the other, seeking information on what was happening. A group of male passengers were crowded around the engine at the front of the train. One said that another engine was being sent to retrieve us. Many of the passengers who could had already started to walk. We were apparently about 30 minutes hike from the second-to-last station before our destination. From there, it would likely be possible to get some form of transport to the end. When Patrick reported this to Diane, she was not pleased. We were getting ready to start hiking when we heard that the rescue engine would likely arrive in 15 more minutes. After about 90 minutes of waiting, the train started moving again, and we made it to Bulawayo at about 1 PM, only 4 hours late!

Zimbabwe, Continued.

We entered into Zimbabwe by walking across the bridge over the Zambezi River just downstream of Victoria Falls. We walked into the town of Victoria Falls, which seemed deserted relative to the bustle of activity on the Zambian side of the falls in Livingstone. All of the gas stations and many of the shops were closed. What remained open was a grocery store, a couple of restaurants, several tour booking agents, and some curio shops. Everything that remained open was there to serve the few remaining tourists, which were sparse. The guest house we stayed at, once a happening place for overland trucks and backpackers had only six guests including us. Most of the other hotels were either closed, or had a similar occupancy rate.

Despite this, the people were friendly, and we felt safe walking the streets. It was possible to see that this was once a thriving tourist town, and before that, a jewel in the prosperous British colony run by Cecil Rhodes (the ‘Rhodes’ in ‘Rhodes Scholar’), leader of the British South Africa Company.

We saw the rest of Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side. It was similarly spectacular, with water levels so high that it was difficult to see through the spray and mist.

We visited the Victoria Falls Hotel, once an opulent destination for wealthy Britains and royals. It is somehow still being maintained in its colonial splendour, despite the lack of tourists.


In Victoria Falls, Diane and I also went for a walk with the local lions.

Yes, they’re real lions, with fangs and claws intact. But no, they’re not wild. They are part of a program to breed and reintroduce lions to many parts of Africa. Walking with the lions is part of Stage 1 of a four stage process that, over many years, will be able to develop prides of truly wild lions that can successfully hunt, breed, and survive in the wild with other lions and predators. Having tourists interact with select lions brings in an essential source of money to fund the program, and is done in a respectful and humane way.

We walked with two lions, a brother and sister, aged 19 months. Although they’re only teenagers, they seemed pretty darn big to us. The whole event seemed very mellow, until they gave us the safety talk, and asked us to sign the waiver. They told us that lions were very inquisitive, and might be fascinated with anything that dangled from us, like camera bag. At this point, Diane took off her earrings and put her hair up.

We were told to walk in single file, and not fall behind. We were instructed to walk behind the lions, and not to touch them in front of the shoulder. If they rolled over, we were to step away. We were each given a small stick, completely inadequate to defend against a lion. If a lion came directly at us, we were to raise the stick, and firmly say “No cub”. They didn’t look like cubs to us.

We walked with the lions for one hour, and had the opportunity to stroll beside them, and touch them as they paced and as they rested. For the record, lions look relaxed, but they walk quickly. They were just like Doobie and Skyler, but one hundred times bigger and infinitely more dangerous.

Before we went to Zimbabwe, Diane was very nervous. Her thoughts now? Victoria Falls is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It was like an old west ghost town. You could tell that it once was a thriving community, but it’s lost its luster. It is still alive, and things are improving. Not only are more tourists required, but money and time will be necessary to restore it to its former glory.

Zim Baby

The largest part of Victoria Falls is located on the other side of the river from Livingstone, in the country of Zimbabwe. Few tourists go to Zimbabwe, because it is run by a dictator named Robert Mugabe, who is desperately holding on to power. Many people expect a coup d’état soon, as the country has been devastated over the last ten years. Zimbabwe is on a list of the top ten failed nations on the planet.

Zimbabwe once had one of the most successful economies in Africa. Due to its good climate, it was self-sufficient in food production, and exported crops including tobacco. It also has mineral resources including diamond mines. In 1990, after 10 very successful years of independence from Britain, the Zimbabwe dollar was still very strong against the world’s currencies.

Between the years 1997 and 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a complete economic collapse due to political instability and corruption, and policies that discouraged or inhibited economic activity. For example, in an effort to gain more support from blacks, Mugabe instituted a program of land reform in 2000, where he forcibly confiscated and transferred the best farm lands, which were previously in the hands of a small white minority, to black political and military friends of his. Many black farm workers and white farmers were killed. Of course, none of the new owners were famers, so agricultural production dropped drastically. Tobacco production is today less than one fifth of its previous level.

Mugabe stole millions from the Zimbabwe War Victim’s Compensation Fund, and when this was discovered, was forced to print more money to pay out the benefits. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly dropped by half. This started a cycle of hyper-inflation, with prices increasing out of control. The government responded by banning the use of foreign currencies, to try to force the people to use a currency that was rapidly losing value, and by printing yet more money. Prices were doubling every day, requiring stores to change their prices every few hours, and employees to renegotiate their salaries daily. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly descended into worthlessness and in January 2009, had to be abandoned. Today, Zimbabwe dollars are sold on the streets as souvenirs. I was given a 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollar note as a gift. At one point, 100 Trillion Zim dollars would only buy a loaf of bread, but it’s worthless now.

Of course, during this period, foreign investment withdrew from Zimbabwe. Without a source of funds or foreign currency, the Zimbabwe government could not pay its debts, and no one could purchase foreign goods. Food shortages were widespread. The grocery stores that remained open had little to sell. Gasoline was rationed and unavailable in most parts of the country. Social institutions like education started to fail, because teachers and other civil servants were not being paid. People survived by converting all their money to hard assets, like equipment or non-perishable foodstuffs, that would hopefully retain some value, and by operating on a barter system. Barter, in addition to being tremendously inefficient (i.e. time consuming), even further reduced government tax revenues

Mugabe has remained in control through the use of intimidation and force. He rigged the last two elections, to remain in power. In the most recent election, in 2008, the election results were delayed by six weeks while Mugabe’s people tried to find a way to concoct a Mugabe win. Since his defeat was so complete, this wasn’t possible, yet he somehow negotiated a coalition with his opposition, with Mugabe remaining as President and the real winner becoming Prime Minister.

Due to the lack of foreign exchange, many of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and other critical systems have broken down. A few months ago, about 3000 people died of cholera near the capital city of Harare, as the equipment to treat the water could no longer be maintained.

Despite this tale of woe, tourists to Zimbabwe haven’t been directly affected. In other words, no violence has been perpetrated against tourists by the government, and overall crime levels have remained about the same. However, as you can imagine, tourism rapidly declined to a trickle, and another key economic sector, and source of foreign currency, was devastated.

Media reports about Zimbabwe have been very negative. When we told people that we were going to Africa, they said, “You’re not going to Zimbabwe are you”? Some asked us, and some told us, not to go to Zimbabwe. We’ve met very few people in Africa who have been there recently. Those who had told us that the biggest problem is that the Zimbabwean banking system is not functioning, so it is impossible to get money in Zimbabwe. There are no bank machines, because they have no currency. Neither travelers’ cheques nor credit cards are accepted. Everything must be paid for with cash, using foreign currency brought into the country.

Knowing the history, and in careful consideration of all these factors, we decided to go to Zimbabwe anyhow…