From the south-westernmost point of the African continent to the corner where the borders of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana meet, dealing with African airlines that randomly cancel flights, passing through dodgy and dusty boarder controls whilst having exorbitant amounts of hard currency extracted from you under the guise of a ‘visa’, never sure of which country you’re actually in, visiting one of the natural wonders of the world, spotting elephants and hippos while sipping new world wine as the sun goes down, observing the vast plains from the river boat cruising down the Zambezi River - this was my “out of (southern) Africa” experience.
My latest secret squirrel mission had me land in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is located in Table Bay, against the back drop Table Mountain. A highlight of Cape Town is certainly the picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a beautiful working harbour with a plethora of restaurants and shopping to be enjoyed, not to mention the generous servings of very tasty new world wines.
My mission involved an extensive debrief of my double agent activities with the action officer simply known as ‘The Kid’. The Kid, as the case officer designated to receive the extensive debrief report, successful completed the clandestine ‘Global Forum’ operation having obtained all the necessary intelligence.
Following a lengthy, and somewhat rigorous number of days executing the Global Forum operation, my role as an operative turned to one as a ‘casual’. That is, a casual observer to the surveillance exercises.
My casual observations took me along the spectacular coastline of the South African Peninsula through swish towns like Clifton and Camps Bay and charming historical villages like Simons Town. No visit to the Peninsula would be complete without stopping by Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the mythical meeting place of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (in reality the actual currents meet at a point that fluctuates about a kilometre east of the Cape of Good Hope). The Cape of Good Hope is the south-westernmost point of Africa and the not the common misconceived southern tip of Africa.
|Casual surveillance plan|
|The sout-westernmost point of Africa|
Returning to Cape Town, a visit to the African Penguin colony of Boulders Beach was scheduled. A sheltered beach with turquoise water surrounded by, you betcha, boulders, was established by just two breading pair of penguins in 1982 that decided to settle in and not move out. The colony now boasts almost 3,000, presumably inbred, penguins.
|Inbreading rife in Boulder Beach|
|Watch out for the little fellows|
Back at V&A Waterfront trying to choose between the zebra skin and impala skin handbags, I decide that neither style suited my taste. Whilst in the gastronomy stakes, I sampled both springbok carpaccio and smoked ostrich carpaccio, and determined both agreed with my pallet. So too were the delightful chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinotage rosé examples I tasted. With the pinotage (red wine grape) being South Africa’s signature variety.
|South Africa's four Nobel Peace Prize winners - can you name them all?|
Following one final meeting with The Kid, I bid farewell in preparation for the 5am wake-up to make the 7:30am Zambezi Airlines flight to Livingstone, Zambia, only to learn on arrival at the airport that the flight had been cancelled. After some negotiations, my travel companion and I are placed on an alternative flight to Johannesburg where we’re assured that a representative of Zambezi Airlines would meet up to redirect us to an onward flight to Livingstone. Predictably there was no representative on touchdown in Jo’burg. Traversing the entire length and bread of Jo’burg airport, we manage to find the Zambezi desk and are told there are only 9 spots left on the 1time.com flight going to Livingstone. Claiming two spots, we go back over the other side of the airport to check in our bags and then begin the sprint back over to yet again the opposite side of the airport through passport control and to the furthest possible gate (of course) to make it with only a few minutes to spare surprisingly bumping into more travel companions.
Upon landing with raucous applause in Livingstone, Zambia I assure my travelling party that we would need a double entry visa for Zambia for the princely sum of US$80, explaining that our trip to Victoria Falls would have us entering Zimbabwe and thus requiring us to come back to Zambia. With usual developing country inefficiency, this process takes some time as we stand in an un-air conditioned arrivals hall whilst the ambient temperature is inching towards 40 degrees.
We meet with our airport transfer driver and are told that we’re being taken to the Zimbabwean boarder where we will be met by our driver that would take us to our safari lodge. Ok, this is a slight departure from what I thought would happen. My travel companions turn to me, now questioning my travel arrangements and searching for answers as to which country we’ll actually be staying in. I admit that I assumed that it was Zambia, but it turns out that we’re actually visiting Robert Magabe’s slightly hostile Zimbabwe, or as the locals prefer to call it ‘Zim’.
We arrive at the border control which consists of nothing more than a pale green shed and cyclone fencing and are ushered inside. More developing country inefficiency where we proceed to one window to promptly hand over another US$30 for an entry visa, shuffling across to collect said visa from the next window. We then take our luggage and walk along the brown dusty road towards the cyclone fence and a larger open shed to hoist our bags on a conveyor belt that is virtually at shoulder height so that it can be scanned by an x-ray machine. We’re not allowed to pass until I extract something questionable from one of my bags, which only gets a momentary glance after I’ve gone to the extensive effort of getting it.
Hauling our bags through the other side of the shed we are then met by our second driver as we pile into the people mover van that is pleasantly air-conditioned with chilled bottled water waiting for us. We’re told that the journey would be about 45 minutes. Passing through what looked like arid bush land, we see the blackened scorched earth of a controlled burn which still happened to be burning, with what seemed like no supervision mind you, it then starts to pour with rain. A very strange sight indeed - burning trees in the pouring rain.
At the end of our journey we approach the Botswana boarder. I’m now receiving glares from my travel companions and I throw my hands up in the air and confess I have no idea where we’re going and which African country we’ll end up in. However, as it turns out, the Botswana boarder is merely our meeting point to be transferred by open air jeep to our Safari Lodge only five minutes away.
|Zimbabwean border with Botswana|
On arrival at the picturesque Zambezi River Imbabala Safari Lodge we’re warmly greeted by the manager and are given cold compresses to refresh ourselves. We’re shown to our individual units and coffee and homemade cake is provided on our return to the bar/lounge/dining area. All is forgiven with my travel companions as we wait for the thunder storm to pass so we can go on our dusk safari drive.
|Safari Lodge - Zimbabwe|
Piling back into the open air jeep heading off on safari we spy impala immediately and vultures feasting on a buffalo that had gotten itself stuck in the mud of the banks of river. It’s not long before we spot a herd of elephants in the distance. As the sun sets quickly, our driver and knowledgeable guide, Rich, uses the powerful spot light to try and catch a glimpse of the nocturnal life of the African plains, however, it wasn’t to be our lucky night.
Back at the lodge we’re treated to a very tasty home cooked dinner together with all the other guests as we recount the animals we all saw on our respective safaris. The next morning would be a dawn wake-up call to head out on yet another safari drive before breakfast. This time, we were able to see graceful giraffes and cheeky looking warthogs in the cool early morning light. Following a sumptuous outdoor breakfast, we head back towards the Zimbabwe/Zambian boarder to visit the amazing Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls or ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) is a UNESCO world heritage site. The total height of the falls is 108 metres and is set in a giant gorge. Whilst it is neither the highest nor widest waterfall in the world, it is claimed to be the largest due to its combined width of 1.7km and height, forming the largest sheet of falling water in the world. Even though the falls were a little ‘dry’ given the season, they still made for a spectacular sight. At some points along the walk the mist that came from the waterfalls was enough to get your clothes fairly damp, although with the temperatures in the high 30s it provided from welcomed relief.
A tour of the local markets I managed to become an instant billionaire. As a result of economic mismanagement, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation a couple of years ago and were therefore forced to print 50 billion dollar notes. These notes are now worthless (Zimbabwe have converted to US currency), but the locals sell them to tourists as souvenirs for US$1. At one stage I was also a trillionaire, but it seems that I lost my 50 trillion dollar note fortune somewhere along my travels.
|If only it was that easy|
Back to the Safari Lodge and we’re just in time for a ‘sundowner’ (a drink as the sun is setting) whilst cruising along the Zambezi River watching the elephants on the banks, or the angry hippos in the water. The keen bird watchers amongst us were particularly enjoying spotting the many species as the sun was growing a deep red and heavy in the sky.
|The setting sun|
|Angry territorial hippo|
After our final delicious dinner, we’re up early again the next morning going on a morning river cruise to watch the sun rise. We visit the border between Botswana and Zambia where ferries cross all day long, and monetarily float into Botswana territory.
|Sunrise on the Zambezi River|
Returning to the Lodge we have breakfast then begin the journey back over the border from Zim to Zam(bia) to catch our flight from Livingstone to Cape Town, or so we thought. Arriving once again at the airport, we learn our flight had been cancelled. However, this time the situation was not at all promising. Zambezi Airlines it seems had completely vanished. The office was closed and all phones were switched off.
There are only three other carriers that operate out of Livingstone, all with one flight each a day leaving within 15-20 minutes of each other. My travel companion is madly racing around from one airline to the next to try and get us on a flight back to Jo’burg at least. Two of those airlines were fully booked with no room on the stand-by list. We manage to get on the stand-by list of the final carrier with only 7 positions available, but this is no guarantee of getting on the flight as effectively 7 people have not turn up so as allowing us to take their position. The situation is getting dire because if my travelling companion doesn’t get onto a flight then they would miss their international connection back to Paris the following day. I on the other hand had intended to go back to Cape Town for a few days to lounge around in Camps Bay before heading back, but neither of us wanted to be stuck in backwater Livingstone.
With some sheer luck and frantic waving of substantial amounts of US currency, I buy ticket numbers 6 and 7, of 7 on the stand-by list for the very last flight leaving Zambia for Jo’burg. I have subsequently never checked in my bag so quickly before, making sure that it gets on the plane.
On arrival in Jo’burg I contact my travel agent in South Africa to see if they can assist me in getting back to Cape Town – they apparently can’t and I have to organise my own arrangements at my own cost. Seeing as economically there is no point in going back Cape Town, only to come back to Jo-burg a day or say later, I rearrange my international flight back to Paris so that I leave the next evening. Consequently I had an unexpected day in Jo’burg which allowed me to take a tour of the town and the township of Soweto to learn more about the fascinating history of South Africa.
|South African Constitutional Court in Jo'burg|
Despite the travel dramas, delays, confusion over countries, it wouldn’t have been a Southern African adventure otherwise. This was all balanced out by the beautiful and varied scenery, rich culture, and warm and friendly hospitality. A place worthy of further missions and exploration.
And yes… I predictably heard the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”… a wimoweh, a wimoweh…