Tales from South Africa #2: Out of the Jungle and into the Falls

Hi there! If you are wondering why you are getting a notification for a defunct blog, please see the explanation at the beginning of my first Tales from South Africa post.

Today’s post is quite long and was intended to be my Trip to Botswana, Part 2. However, Part 1 of this story was never written! (Hence, why this post was left lying unpublished for so long.) Instead of writing the Part 1 for this post and then finishing this Part 2 story and paring it down to a more managable, readable, length, I am instead just going to paste the full, [mostly] un-edited text of my original writing here for anyone who wants to read it. I warn you that it is a bit wordy (though entertaining), and it ends abruptly with no conclusion. If that is something that interests you, then read on!

I will give some context to explain what was going on in this story, all of which would have been covered in the “Part 1” post. Explained briefly, I had a week off of school for a holiday in South Africa and, after other plans fell through, spontaneously found out that my girlfriend Cana had relatives living in the neighboring country of Botswana and made spur of the moment plans to go meet them. I was driven to the airport by a friend, where I caught a plane that brought me to a place where I could catch an Uber to drive me across a city to get on a double-decker bus that I rode for many hours, across country borders, to be met by a taxi that would drive me to a train station in order to ride an overnight train and meet these relatives for the first time. Still keeping up? I ended up having an amazing time staying for a few days with those awesome relatives and at the end of it I was recommended to take a river boat tour of the beautiful game park at Chobe National Park near the town of Kasane on the other side of Botswana. Cana’s uncle Matthew and aunt Kristin recommended this so that I could go see Victoria Falls nearby (over the Zimbabwe border) directly afterward, and then take a plane home to South Africa when I finished. Matthew offered me a ride to the “bus” service that would drive me to Kasane, and the morning of my next journey is where this story begins…

Side note: All maps in this story were made at the time of its original writing.

Today has been pretty wild (no Africa pun intended). I woke up at 4:00am to pack up all my stuff so we could leave the house by 4:30 for the bus rink. Unfortunately, my stomach ache had not gone away, but only gotten worse during the night. I had booked the hostels already, though, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to go to Zimbabwe and see Victoria Falls. So by 5:00 Matthew and I were at the large, paved bus rink trying to find the bus labeled for Kasane. We weren’t finding it, and we asked one of the people milling around where the bus in question was. He told us that there was no Kasane bus this early in the morning, but that he was pretty sure one did leave at 6:00am. Surprised, we looked around and asked one more person who told us even different information, that the bus for Kasane did not leave until 7:00am. This second person also showed us where the bus would park, so we were more inclined to believe him over the first guy.

With two unanticipated hours on our hands, we drove home, stayed there for an hour, and then came back again at 6:30am. This time we found the bus labeled for Kasane, but when we asked what time it left, the driver told us 8:00am! Left with no other options (because it was obviously not worth it to drive back to Matthew and Kristin’s house again, I said goodbye to Matthew and just waited in the bus rink for an hour and a half until the departure time.

I should explain that when I use the term ‘bus’, people don’t always mean actual buses here in Botswana. Often times ‘bus’ can refer to these very large vans that informally take people where they need to go and allow people to pay once they are on and are already riding (as opposed to giving riders the option to buy tickets ahead of time). Many things in Africa can feel very similar to America, like when you are going grocery shopping or something, but taking this bus felt like a distinctly African experience. The vehicle I took (like most of these ‘buses’) was very run down and had about 24 seats in it, most of them torn up and with the stuffing coming out. Each of the passengers that boarded brought an odd assortment of items along with them – sometimes a T.V., sometimes a plastic baby walker, sometimes a gargantuan bag of Styrofoam cups. Before it is time to leave, passengers and drivers alike mill around the rink, talking and sometimes buying snacks from the vendors that set up shop on little fold-out tables. What’s funny is that some of the vendors will walk right onto the buses to try and sell their wares to the passengers. As it approaches the time to go, people begin piling into the bus, some even waiting until the bus is moving before walking over to jump on. In the backseat with the passengers is someone who works with the bus driver and is in charge of taking people’s money once the vehicle is on the road. He slams the door shut as the bus leaves the rink and the journey begins.

What I mean when I say “bus”
A view of the bus rink and the inside of my bus

Our travel time to Kasane was predicted to be 6 hours. As we drove down the barren, dusty road that constituted 99% of the journey, however, the driver would pull over any time there was someone standing on the side of the road along the way. The backseat attendant would open the door and the person from the road would hop in (presumably telling the attendant how far they needed to go but I don’t speak Setswana so I can’t 100% confirm that is what they were saying). As far as I could tell payment varied for the people getting on the bus part-way. Some people didn’t pay at all while others passed the attendant a 20 pula bill or a stack of coins (for reference, the price for the full trip that I paid was 35 pula, or about $3). These mid-trip travelers would ride along the route for various amounts of time and would hop out whenever the bus pulled off to make a quick stop, often times at areas that contained significant settlements. Throughout the entire trip there was only one stop made where everyone could get out and stretch or use the restroom, and this was at a gas station about half-way.

Most of the bus ride for me was spent trying to sleep (not very successfully) or looking out the window. I had a really great conversation with a Zambian man when we stopped at the gas station, but I didn’t talk to anyone while the bus was moving. We started out with about 10 people on the bus, but because of all the aforementioned stops to pick people up along the way, we quickly filled up all of the seats until everyone was tightly packed in. There was no air-conditioning inside, so the atmosphere was pretty stuffy and a slight smell of body odor lingered throughout the ride. I was too afraid to eat any food that day because I didn’t want to set off the intense stomach ache again, so during the entire time I only managed to eat an apple.

My six-hour view

As we were getting closer to Kasane, I was watching my clock more and more. I had a boat cruise scheduled for 3:00pm that day, but the truck from my hostel was taking people to the boat at 2:30. I kept compulsively checking the clock on my phone and then checking Google Maps to see how far we had left to go. I watched as the hours ticked by from noon, to 1:00, to 2:00. I was getting pretty worried considering that the only reason I was travelling to Kasane was to do the boat ride… It would end up being a complete waste of time and money if I missed it. When 2:30 rolled around and we still had not arrived, I decided that I could try something that Matthew had suggested and see if I could get the bus driver to drop me off at the river, and then try and find the boat myself from there (instead of getting a ride from the hostel). Yet hopes of even getting to do that were dashed when the clock hit 3pm and we still were not in Kasane. At first I was pretty distressed that I had come all this way to not even get to do anything at the Chobe National Park, but after thinking about it for a while I decided to not let it bother me and have to a good outlook on the situation. “At least I got to take a crazy ‘bus’ ride through Africa!” I thought. At least I would still get to see Victoria Falls!

We stopped at a security checkpoint, which (thankfully) was very brief. When I handed the guard my passport he looked down at the cover and saw that it was American, then handed it back to me without even opening it up. Very secure. I also got a random bloody nose on the ride, but I didn’t have anything at all that I could use to stop it so I just had to tilt my head back and try to use my hands to block the blood. That was probably the grossest thing I had to do on my trip, because it wouldn’t be until many hours later that I would find somewhere I could wash my hands. When we were getting close to our destination, I briefly saw an elephant on the side of the road, eating from the trees! We passed by it pretty quick, though.

It was after 3pm when we finally arrived in Kasane and dropped everyone off (labelled #1 on the below picture). The ride had taken over 7 hours rather than the promised 6. Everyone but me and one other person on the bus unloaded at the Botswana-Zimbabwe border. I told the driver that I needed to go to my lodge, but he didn’t know the one I was talking about, and because everyone just knows the roads by memory, showing him a map of where it was versus where we were only got him more confused (this would be a recurrent theme – any time I tried to show a driver a map, they would just get confused). Eventually I was able to communicate the road that I needed to go down and based on looking at Google Maps there appeared to be another road that would connect me from “Upper Road” (where he would drop me off) to my hostel (Elephant Trail Guesthouse). The driver finally took me over to where the connecting road was (#2 on the below picture) and dropped me off on the side of the dusty road. What worried me was that Google Maps had made things look much closer than they really were…. it was multiple miles to get from the “Upper Road” into the neighborhood of guesthouses.

A map of the locations I am referring to in these paragraphs. Not a short distance!

I was now on the side of a desert road with nothing but sand and shrub around me. I needed to get into the neighborhood where my lodging was, but to do that I needed some sort of ride and I also needed to find the road. I was a bit perplexed, because the map on my phone made the road connecting “Upper Road” to the neighborhood seem quite prominent, but when we had driven to where I was dropped off I hadn’t noticed it. I walked short distance and happened upon a small business selling outdoor plants and lawn decorations in the middle of nowhere. There were only two patrons inside, an elderly white couple from Zimbabwe, and I asked them if they could give me a ride into the neighborhood. This is when I found out that the distance was not my worst problem. The connecting road on the map that looked so convenient was in reality a mangy dirt road that only very tough off-road vehicles could traverse. In addition, it went right through a forest of trees and was too dangerous walk on foot because of the risk of getting attacked by wild animals that lived there. The only way to get into the neighborhood, I found out, was to go around the outside, through the town, and then enter it from the highway I had come in on (labeled #5 in my picture). It was a long distance, and the old couple told me that they could take me part of the way since they were going in that direction to get a haircut. I gratefully accepted their ride, and the took me a mile or two closer to the neighborhood entrance until they got to near their destination, then dropped me off on the side of the road again and said that if I was still there when they returned, they would take me the rest of the way.

Chuckling at the odd situation I was in after a 7-hour bus ride that I woke up at 4am to catch, I waited on the side of that road for a little while and stuck my hand out to any of the few cars that passed by in an attempt to get a ride. Taxis in Botswana are not like yellow American cabs, rather they can be any model of car that the driver owns. The only thing that differentiates them from regular private cars is the color of their license plate (which is blue instead of white). After a short amount of time I managed to get a driver to pull over and I hopped inside of his sedan with a few other African ladies who were already inside. The driver continued along his route but he didn’t speak strong English and kept asking if I wanted a “Special”. I didn’t know what that meant and tried to communicate to him where I wanted to go. It did not work very well, and he eventually dropped the other ladies off and took me in the all the way to near the Kasane airport (labelled #4 on the image). This was the opposite of where I needed to be, but he got confused when I tried to show him where my real destination was, so I eventually just thanked & paid him, then got out to find another taxi driver. I was able to find someone else immediately who knew where the Elephant Trail Guesthouse was and was willing to drive me there. By this time I was starting to figure out that “Special” meant I as the passenger got to pick out where I wanted to go versus being taken to some pre-determined stops that the driver goes to (I think). Anyway, this driver was pretty friendly and took me all the way out to the entrance of the neighborhoods (#5 on the image) and then into the interior to drop me off at my hostel. It was after 4:00pm by the time I finally got to my hostel, sweaty and exhausted, and I ended up paying more for the two taxi rides than I had for the entire seven hour drive up from Francistown!

The backpacker’s lodge I was staying at was actually a pretty neat place. There were a few wooden buildings for guests to stay in nestled next to a cute little patio with an open building containing a simple kitchen and a table, and all of it was abundantly decorated to make the entire place pop. It was like walking into one of those “hidden getaways” from vacation catalogs – there was just so much to look at wherever you turned your head. The size of the staff was pretty small, and I later found out that it was mostly people related to the owner. The place had a lot of charm. For such a small operation, they did pretty much everything you would find at a larger, more professional lodge: guided game drives, boat river cruises, hot breakfasts, lunches and dinners, a bar, transportation to other locations like Zimbabwe, sunbathing chairs, a small pond with a bridge over it, just about anything you could think of.

A poor view of a very beautiful hostel

When I first arrived at the lodge it was pretty much empty. I chatted a little bit with the people near the reception desk (2021 sidenote: one of whom I still message with to this day!), and then made my way to my room to finally drop my stuff and decompress a little bit. I decided to take a shower, since they mentioned that the hostel had one, but it turned out to be an open-air setup that consisted of a single showerhead sticking out of a wall and that was located right next to an active boiler. If you stepped too far to your left, you could easily touch the boiler for some immediate third-degree burns, but the intense heat radiating off it was actually not so bad when combined with the frigid water that poured from the shower head. Hot water was available from the shower head as well, but it was so searing that it would scald any part of you that it touched once it reached its maximum temperature. This lead to a game of quickly switching the water back and forth back between the two available extremes throughout my whole shower. Luckily while I was doing this no one walked by, because although there was a flimsy curtain, the wind ensured that it kept blowing inward and exposing me to the rest of the world.

After the laughable showering experience, I just relaxed around the hostel for the afternoon and into the evening. I was still afraid to eat much, so I snacked on a couple of bags of chips and counted that as my dinner. The hostel stayed pretty quiet all throughout the evening, only getting a little bit more lively when a group of Korean backpackers showed up and checked in (they ended up sharing the same room as me). Since I was spending most of that night out in the main patio area, I got to know the owner of hostel, Neo. She was a very friendly, young, single woman, and she told me the story of how she came to start renting out her house and eventually turned it into an Airbnb and slowly upgraded it to a full hostel. She explained to me how she did not want to grow it much bigger than its current size because she enjoyed getting to know the customers that were staying at her house and didn’t want to lose the feeling of closeness that would come by making the place huge and commercial. Neo was incredibly nice and throughout my whole stay she was incredibly accommodating to any need I had, doing her best to go out of her way and help me.

The pinnacle of this came when I asked if they were doing any game drives the next day since I had missed the boat ride. When I had first arrived, I was told that they were not going to take one out because to make it worth it they needed at least two people to show interest going and I was the only guest who had asked. The Koreans showed up already having plans for one somewhere else the next day. I was bummed but made peace with it by the time evening came and decided I was grateful to even get to be in northern Botswana and have the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls the next day. Yet that night, when my conversation with Neo was starting to wind down and I began eyeing the clock to get to bed, Neo suddenly told me that she was going to ask the driver to take me out on safari the next day even though no one else had requested it. It was so kind of her, especially because I think she was losing money by offering it. I was extremely grateful and excited, and after wishing everyone goodnight I headed to my room so that I could get up early the next morning.

The best time to see wild cats is when it is still dark outside or during early dawn. This is why I woke up around 5:00am, bleary but excited to see some animals. Things seemed a little bit too dark when I woke up, and that turned out to be because the power had gone out. They eventually got a generator running, and not long after that my tour guide, Freeman, and I were climbing into a huge, empty tour jeep. The engine roared to life and we took off down some backwoods dirt paths that would take us straight from the neighborhoods to the road near the game park (instead of going all the way around like I did yesterday). The roads were bumpy enough to even make a seasoned pirate sick, and every small deviation in the incline made the vehicle rattle and squeak loudly, to the point where it was very difficult to hear other people speak over the sound of the jeep. I really enjoyed getting to be in the front seat, though, (loudly) chatting with the driver as the cool morning air whizzed past my face. It was still pitch dark outside, so the headlights from the car only illuminated about ten feet in front of us, revealing the uneven dirt path and the thick walls of trees that closed in tightly on either side of us. At one point while we were driving, an elephant emerged out of nowhere from the trees and walked right in front our game car, almost close enough that I could touch it! It quickly disappeared into the foliage on the other side of the rode, and then as our car drove over the place it had been walking, the elephant gave a deafening trumpet! It was so loud but so cool – I think that was one of my favorite and most authentic parts of the game drive because it didn’t happen in the park, just in some trees around the neighborhood!

The entire tour truck to myself! (This was later in the day)

We eventually made it to the park, and after a decent wait in line with a gaggle of other game jeeps touring that morning, were able to enter. The simmering anticipation as you looked out for different animals throughout the whole drive was really fun, and my driver was both very friendly and insanely knowledgeable. I assiduously took down the name of every small bird and creature that we encountered and quizzed myself by trying to relay the names back to my driver whenever we saw duplicate animals. Game drives have a way of totally enrapturing you if you let them, and even though we were not seeing many “exciting” animals, I was still having a great time peering through binoculars at everything we could find. At one point we found some leopard tracks, the most elusive animal on any game drive, imprinted in the sandy trail and we followed them for a long while to see if we could spot the cat itself. We were unsuccessful and eventually it got late enough that we had to turn back to head to the entrance again (though with enough time to stop for tea along the way).

In all, I ended up having a very unique and rare experience on my game drive in regard to the animals we saw, which is what every rider wants, but in my case it was for the wrong reasons. Throughout the entire time we never really saw any exciting animals, just some common species of antelope, lots of birds, and some baboons. Technically we also saw some hippos and a crocodile, but they were all either completely submerged in the water or they were so far away that they could only be seen as little splotches through the binoculars. My tour guide told me that in all his years of doing game drives, he had never had an experience or even heard of anyone who took a drive and didn’t see any of the “big” animals (elephants, giraffe, lions, leopards, hippos, etc.). He also said that this was the first drive he had taken through Chobe where he hadn’t encountered any lions. I think he was more upset than I was over our lack of animal sightings, and I tried to comfort him by repeatedly letting him know that I had a great time anyway. I was just happy to have gotten to do a game drive at all, which hadn’t been a sure thing just the night before!

At least I got to see some animals, even if they weren’t the most exotic!

Because he was so disheartened by the lack of animals we saw, my guide resolved to drive us out into the bush surrounding Kasane in hopes of at least spotting one impressive creature. While in the bush outside of the park, we stumbled upon a large group of marabou stork, baboons, and impala all living together. To watch their relaxed coexistent relationship was really cool, and after observing them for a while we continued on in the hot sun for another hour or so looking for something new. Unfortunately our luck was about the same as it had been in the park, and we didn’t stumble upon any big game animals. We finally merged back onto the roads and briefly stopped at a petrol station where I bought my guide some food as thanks for the trip (especially because I think the original amount I paid was only enough to cover petrol for the truck). I saw a warthog eating trash there, so I guess that was technically a new animal.

The trip ended with us arriving back at the hostel, sweaty and lethargic but happy. I packed up my stuff there, showered, and ordered a ride to Victoria Fall in Zimbabwe through contacts from the hostel staff. Within an hour I was in the car of man who drove me to the Zimbabwe border and passed me off to another guy who would drive me on the other side. After some issues with the Zimbabwe border police (they require $30 USD to enter, they did not have card reader, and I did not have cash) I eventually made it into the other man’s car and we were zipping down the straight road on the 1 ½-hour drive to Victoria Falls.

Context for the drive from Kasana to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Not much of note happened in the journey to Vic Falls, besides some good conversation with the driver. The only significant part was one point when we stopped to look at a herd of (ten) elephants that were standing on the other side of the road. They had their calves with them, and they were so cute!

A herd of elephants on the side of the road!!

In Victoria Falls (the name of the town that is shared with the landmark) I was dropped off right at the entrance of my next hostel, which was very convenient. This residence was much larger and more commercial, with a number of guests lounging around the property, a small café to order food from, a pool, and many other amenities. I walked up to the front desk, checked in, and handed my debit card to the receptionist to pay, only to be handed it back and told that the payment was rejected! I was confused, but luckily I had brought an extra credit with me for emergency situations (it has foreign transaction fees which I don’t like). However, I was shocked to find that card was rejected, too! I asked the receptionist for the Wi-Fi password, then tediously used my phone to log onto my debit card’s website, pass through some extra security checks, and discover that a money transfer I had made days ago to the card had still not gone through yet. Having one mystery solved, I logged on to my credit card’s website and realized that my “travel alerts” had only been set to allow transactions in South Africa, but not Zimbabwe, but I could not add a new “travel alert” for Zimbabwe because the dates overlapped with when my bank expected me to be in South Africa. So I had to remove the South African alert and add one for Zimbabwe, finally allowing me to use the credit card to pay for my room.

After that hassle it was getting late and Victoria Falls was going to close in an hour. I was disappointed because the plan had been to see the Falls that day, but I decided that I could quickly squeeze it in the next morning instead, before my plane ride home. I put my stuff in the bunkbed room I was staying in, and then decided to relax in the main plaza and order a pizza from the small café on the premise (since I was still only subsisting off of the small bags of chips and the fruit I had eaten).

While I was eating, a stranger walked up to me and asked if could sit across from at the table I was using. I told him ‘sure’, and he sat down and we began chatting. I learned that the guy’s name was Piotr, and that he was from Poland (although he was studying in Germany). As we talked, Piotr began telling me some absolutely crazy stories about his past three days that put my own adventures to shame. I won’t go into all the details, because you could fill up a blog post on its own with them, but I was both incredulous and in stitches as Piotr showed me pictures from his past few days in Africa, travelling through Zambia, getting lost without food in rural villages, eating six raw tomatoes as his only meal for a day, drinking his own urine, and getting up close to crocodiles. The dude was truly legendary in the experiences he’d had, and we talked for well over an hour getting to know each other and swapping stories from our recent travels.

Me directly before Piotr sat down in the empty spot across from me at the table

Eventually we realized that we both wanted to see Vic Falls tomorrow, and so we made a plan to go together in the morning. Neither of us had food to bring, however, so we determined that we would need to take a trip to the supermarket that night to grab some snacks for the hike. Piotr was staying in a different hostel (he had only come to mine for food), so together we walked over to his residence and got some money and other things he needed, then headed off in the direction that we thought the supermarket was in. Upon walking for some time, we came to a crossroads where we weren’t sure which direction to go, and decided to ask for help from a man standing on the sidewalk. I asked him which way the store was, and the guy began loudly telling me directions, and then just told me that he would take us there in his van. I glanced over at Piotr, who was saucer-eyed and shaking his head me, and so I declined the man’s offer, but this seemed to really upset him. The man was quite offended that we would reject his hospitality and continued to pressure us to allow him to chauffer, telling us that he wasn’t some creepy weirdo or dangerous person seeking harm, after which Piotr finally relented and accepted the offer of hospitality. We climbed into his curtained van, and even though I sat on the edge with a hand near the door, the man (whose name was Isaac) did indeed turn out to be just a good citizen. He took us directly to the store and we began talking about what we were doing in Zimbabwe and how long we were staying. When Isaac found out that I was going to the airport the next day, he offered to take me there for 20 USD. I asked him if he would do it for $18, as I already had an offer from someone for 20 USD, and Isaac, whose voice never went below a loud bellow even though we right behind him in the van, went on energetic spiel about “marketing,” how he was giving me a deal, and how important marketing is in the world. He told us that for $20 he would take us home from the store tonight, then pick us up in the morning to take us to Victoria Falls, and then ALSO take me to the airport as well as Piotr so that Piotr could see “his brother” off. Piotr had a prior commitment late the next morning and could not see me off at the airport even if he wanted to, but to Isaac this did not make sense because we could not get him to understand that the two of us were not brothers or related in any way.

The grocery store was pretty barren, so Piotr and I ended up only eating a banana, some boxed milk, a bag of Doritos, and some cold beans the next day.

One thought on “Tales from South Africa #2: Out of the Jungle and into the Falls

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