3000 kilometers through Mexico

Morning calm in the charming colonial town of Valladolid

Our 2015 travel season was a good one. Spending four months in Africa was a travel dream come true and the memories created during that time will be with us forever. With that said, we knew that 2016 would be very different for us as far as traveling goes. The economy in our region of Canada tanked as of late and our Canadian dollar followed. Hyo Jin also started a new job. So this year we made the decision to keep our explorations closer to home and get reacquainted with our own beautiful mountain parks and the incredible nature that our neck of the woods have to offer. But we are travel junkies and we were going to get our foreign fix even if it was for just a few weeks. So shortly after Christmas we left the snow and the cold behind, packed our bags and headed for warmer climes… Mexico it was!

Agua Azul, Chiapas

We had been to Mexico before and really enjoyed the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán so this year we returned to explore that area a little more in depth and discover some new places as well. We had three weeks at our disposal and we were going to spend them on a road trip that would take us through Q-Roo, the Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas and back again.

We flew into Cancún and spent our first couple of nights in Playa del Carmen, a once quaint seaside town in the heart of the Mayan Riviera. These days it’s a bit of a different story, mind you, it was the holiday season and the popular BPM festival was in full swing as well. It's still a fun and lively place to while away a couple of days though. Anyways, we had our rented wheels and we put them to good use. We rang in New Year’s in the beautiful colonial city of Mérida and the next day it was time to begin the road trip proper.

Palenque, Chiapas

Our route would take us from Mérida to the ancient Mayan sites of Uxmal and Edzná via the Ruta Puuc and onto Campeche City. From there we headed to the incredible Mayan ruins of Palenque and then deeper into Chiapas via the treacherous route 199 to San Cristóbal de las Casas and the Sumidero Canyon. From there we did a 180 and headed back towards Palenque taking in some other sights along the way such as the archaeological site of Toniná and the natural wonders of Misol-Há and Agua Azul. We then used Palenque as a base to venture out to the Mayan riverside temples at Yaxchilán along the Guatemalan border and the ornately painted temples of Bonampak not too far from there- an easy day trip from Palenque. After that we headed to Xpujil, a small town in Campeche that served as an ideal base to check out the impressive jungle ruins of Calakmul and the equally impressive site of Becan just out of town. Once finished in that area we headed back to Valladolid in Yucatán– a destination in itself but an excellent place to stay while checking out the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, Ek’ Balam and even Cobá, not to mention the many gorgeous cenotes that puncture the landscape throughout that area. A couple nights in Tulum (again a great place to explore ruins, beaches and cenotes from) and it was back to Playa for us. Three weeks go by fast when attempting an itinerary as ambitious as this one! But this is a great 3-week route that serves up a balanced mix of colonial architecture, Mayan ruins, jungle, wildlife, waterfalls, beaches, culture, cuisine, and cenotes.

The archaeological site of Edzná

Found this beast in the Sumidero Canyon

So that was our Mexican road trip… well the route anyways. I will now elaborate a little on some of our favorite places along the way and offer some suggestions on places not to miss when in the area.

Exploring Becan, Campeche state

El Castillo, Chichén Itzá

The gorgeous seaside views at Tulum

Palenque's famous tower

Mayan Ruins: As far as Mayan ruins go I really think everyone will have an individual preference. If it’s your first time in Mexico or on a tight schedule, then you can’t go wrong with some of the more popular sites such as Tulum, Chichén Itzá, Ek’ Balam and Cobá. But be warned; these sites can get very crowded, especially during high tourist seasons. There is a reason though why the masses flock to Chichén Itzá- it is by far the best preserved (or restored) Mayan complex in southern Mexico with some amazing reliefs and even its own cenote. To miss the bulk of the crowds just plan to be there as it opens. If time affords, Palenque is magnificent and well worth what it takes to get there, but it too has also become quite busy over the years. It is still a tranquil place though when compared to Chichén Itzá. Palenque can also be combined with the picturesque waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol-Há- a fantastic way to escape the heat of the area. But if you’re looking for an adventure and have some time to spare, then I highly recommend the jungle ruins of Calakmul and Becan. While the ruins here are among my favorites, the area is also a great destination if you are into spotting some wildlife. Did I mention that there is also a cave half way between Xpujil and the turnoff to Calakmul where you can watch the nightly exodus of a couple million bats- it’s really an incredible sight and not to be missed if in the neighbourhood.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Campeche

Colonial Towns: We’ve always loved the colonial town of Valladolid in Yucatán and still very much recommend this place, but this trip we discovered great architecture, food, and people in Mérida, Izamal, Campeche and San Cristóbal de las Casas as well (especially San Cris). While in Valladolid you have to check out the brilliant Casa de los Venados– a private residence-cum-Mexican folk art museum. It operates on a donation basis and all the proceeds gets reinvested into the community through various programs. And if you do find yourself in Mérida, you must pay a visit to La Chaya Maya for the best eats on the peninsula.

Inside Cenote Samula

Cenotes: There are plenty of these watery pits around. Some are cheap or even free, while others have been turned into natural theme parks and charge more than $100 a day. Then there are others that fall somewhere in between these two types. I recommend using Tulum and Valladolid as a base to discover some of the best cenotes, but other than that, just go and explore some for yourself.

Another from Agua Azul, Chiapas

Driving in Mexico: The crime in Mexico is staggering and well publicized but fortunately southern Mexico is relatively safe. You will still hear a lot of people warning that it is unsafe to drive on your own in this part of Mexico, especially in the state of Chiapas. I think it’s completely untrue. Sure you have to exercise a certain amount of caution; don’t leave valuables in plain sight or unattended in your vehicle and avoid driving at night (at least in Chiapas), but other than that you should have no problems at all. We were never robbed by banditos or terrorized by local guerilla groups, in fact, the only annoyances we experienced were the copious amount of ‘topes’ (speed bumps) that the government likes to place along their highways and the opportunity that the reduction in speed creates for the local children to try and sell you something you don’t want. In fact, southern Mexico is an ideal place for a road trip; the roads are generally in excellent shape, gas is cheap, rental vehicles are inexpensive (especially if you book in advance over the Internet) and having the freedom to move around and explore on your terms is liberating and you're never far from good lodging and food options either. It’s the only reasonable way to see some of the more remote sights in a the region and a great opportunity to discover and experience a truly authentic Mexico.

Turquoise-browed motmot, Cobá

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Africa: The Last Leg

Already on the beautiful island of Zanzibar we were planning the last leg of our African trip. This meant some frantic online searching for safari-equipped 4X4s and of course our plane tickets to get back to Namibia. We managed to secure both, although waiting until the last minute to book our bush and camping-equipped 4X4 was not a good idea in retrospect- it was the end of April which is the beginning of the busy season, and these vehicles are in high demand. We finally found one though with a very reputable company (this is also a very important consideration when renting in Namibia), Savanna Car Hire in Windhoek. We got ourselves a Toyota Hilux double cab equipped with a rooftop tent, fridge, and all the camping and emergency road gear you can think of for a 15-day rental which set us back around $100 per day with all of our insurance included- not bad when you consider that you are completely self-sufficient for that period of time. The only other expenses you can expect are the camping fees which average around $30 per site and, of course, fuel. There are however plenty of places in Namibia where you can find a secluded place to pull over and set up camp without paying any fees at all, but if it’s the fancy washrooms with showers, restaurants and many times even swimming pools you want, you will need to pony up on the campsite.

Our first night in the desert

If you're going to drive in Africa, you gotta learn the signs!

Having been to Namibia a few months prior on our overland tour, we knew there were some places we wanted to return to and spend some more time in, namely some areas in the Namib Desert, Spitzkoppe, and Etosha National Park. As well there were also places that we wanted to explore for the first time such as some areas off the beaten track in the Damaraland and Kaokoveld regions. As with any road trip there would also be some more impromptu stops and in some cases these would prove to be among the highlights of the trip. So, a portion of our road trip was planned and at other times we changed our course and decided to wing it, but our 15 days went without a hitch and we loved every minute of it.

Inside Dead Vlei

Another scene from Dead Vlei

After leaving Namibia’s capital of Windhoek we headed south into the Namib Desert, spending our first few days around the incredible sand dunes and desertscapes of Sossusvlei. We started our mornings before the sun came up and usually didn’t return to camp until well after sunset. Not only are the times around sunrise and sunset the most photogenic, they are also the moments of the day that offer some reprieve from the oppressive temps that is all to common in this part of the country. Many afternoons the mercury climbed to well over 40 degrees Celsius. After we had our fill of the desert we headed towards the Skeleton Coast until just north of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is a real treat for all your senses! Here the mornings can be downright chilly and the winds blustery but its rugged scenery is well worth checking out. We then headed inland again spending a couple of nights in one of our favourite places… Spitzkoppe. We were blown away by its beauty the first time around and knew that we couldn’t leave Africa without becoming a little better acquainted with the area.

An oryx poses pretty, Sossusvlei

The seal colony at Cape Cross

Spitzkoppe by night

We then pushed further into Damaraland through the Brandberg area and onto the incredible territory of Twyfelfontein. This region was a spontaneous stop for us and became one of the trip’s highlights. It was here where we discovered many amazing petroglyphs that dated nearly 5000 years old. It was also in this area where we hung out with a herd of over 30 endangered desert elephants and spotted a couple of cheetahs to boot! From Twyfelfontein the roads became progressively worse which signaled our arrival into the Kaokoveld (Kunene) region. This area is arid at best but the further north we pushed, beautiful Baobabs became more prevalent. At some points we couldn’t have been more than 30 kilometers from the Angolan border but we based ourselves out of Opuwo, the hub of the Kaokoveld and the capital of Namibia’s northern tribal lands. The town itself is a hubbub of activity. OvaHimba push shopping carts through the supermarket aisles, Herero women trade their wares in the streets, and groups of Zemba girls hang out on the corners. It's truly a colourful display of life. We did head out to one Himba village not too far from Opuwo which was a nice insight into their culture and a fun afternoon. This experience was much more positive than the one we endured during our overland tour. This time it was just us, our interpreter, and a village full of Himba women and children who were just as happy to spend time with us as we were with them.

One of the petroglyphs in the Twyfelfontein area

Desert elephants, Twyfelfontein

Himba woman near Opuwo

After leaving Opuwo we made a beeline for Etosha National Park, entering from its westernmost gate. We spent our first night at Okaukuejo and our remaining nights at Halali, our favourite of Etosha’s camps. We had such great experiences with Etosha on our Nomad overland tour, but nothing could have prepared us for all the wildlife we spotted during our days of self-driving in the park. We really got to know some of the animals during this time; their habits and schedules, which made tracking them a whole lot of fun. Being in your own vehicle you can also spend as much (or as little) time as you want with each animal encounter. During our time in Etosha we saw more animals that make sense to list, and slept each night under the stars with the calls of the wild all around us. These were also very early mornings and late returns to camp, but there can be no question that the best time for wildlife viewing is during the early morning and late evening hours. We were rewarded royally one morning when a lone leopard crossed our path. The sun just came up, and it was just the leopard and us- one of our favourite experiences for sure! After Etosha we spent a couple of nights in the Waterberg region and that took us to the end of our 15-day road trip through Namibia. We put on a staggering 4,700 kilometers in those 15 days but man… was it worth it!

Night shot of a rhino at an Etosha waterhole

Male lion at the golden hour, Etosha

Early morning encounter with our leopard

Two exhausted lionesses and six reasons why!

Another male, another golden hour

A lone lioness and acacia tree

A black-backed jackal scurries along

We caught the Windhoek to Cape Town bus a couple of days later and there in Cape Town is where we enjoyed our last six days on the African continent. After four months we had come full-circle to the city we had started our journey, and one of our favourite cities in the world. We rented a car for a couple of days to explore some of the other sights scattered around the Western Cape and fell even deeper in love with the area. There can be no doubt that our trip to Africa was epic and one we will always remember and one we will probably always want to replicate. Seven countries and four months of experiences that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. But this will not be the last we see of Africa!

The colourful surf shacks at Muizenberg beach

 

Tanzania: Parks and Paradise

Inside the Ngorongoro

It’s true that our initial introduction to Tanzania was less than positive, but I had my camera equipment back and I was prepared to continue along our Tanzanian journey with a positive attitude. Sometimes a bounce back from tragedy can renew your spirit or at least make you appreciate everything a little more and it certainly serves as a reminder of the inherent risks of traveling in foreign countries. In this post I will offer some suggestions about organizing a safari on the fly, make a recommendation of the operator we went with, and write briefly about where we went and what we saw. The last portion of this post I will dedicate to the two weeks we spent in Zanzibar and the excellent guesthouse we called home during our time in Jambiani. However, in an attempt to expedite my tardy blog posts from Africa, I will try to make the last couple of entries text-sparing and image-heavy… I hope you don’t mind!

Lets get on with it then…

There can be no doubt that one of the main motivations for us deciding to visit Africa, and Tanzania in particular, was to see as much of its incredible wildlife as possible. We had already visited Etosha in Namibia, Chobe and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Hwange in Zimbabwe. These are all elite parks and should be a first choice if searching for wildlife in those respective countries. But we were still itching for more animal encounters and what better place to scratch that itch than in Tanzania’s national park Meccas of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. However, in the aforementioned countries you can organize safaris or even self-drive your way through the parks all on your own and on a modest budget. This is not so much the case in Tanzania. As far as I know, you are not permitted to self drive in the Serengeti nor the Ngorongoro Conservation Area- and even if you could, it wouldn’t eliminate the requisite and exorbitant park fees which can be as high as $300 (US) per day.

Serengeti lioness

But if you want to keep costs down I do have some tips that will allow you to do just that. First, do not book your safari in advance, rather ‘shop around’ once you get to Arusha (the capital city of safari-land). You can often get far better rates or be in a advantageous bargain situation if you join other people and if you wait until you are there you may be the ones to fill-up the last spots on a safari that is leaving straight away. Another reason for not booking in advance is the simple fact that the smaller tour operators are not well represented on booking sites. Some small safari operators, such as the one we went with, operate out of a modest shop and do not advertise online. You can still do your research and check reviews on these operators on sites such as TripAdvisor but you are bound to get a lower price just because they want your business. Secondly, it will be cheaper yet if you share your safari with others- the more people in your truck, the cheaper the individual rate will be. But make sure you are compatible with the others in your group! The third money saving tip is this: go camping! Not only will you save a boatload of cash by going on a camping safari over an accommodated one, you will experience these parks the way it was intended… in the outdoors! Nothing is better than hearing the calls of nature while snug in your tent or answering the call of nature with prowling hyenas a few meters away! Yes, seriously! Fourth money saving suggestion would be to travel during the ‘off-season’. The off-season coincides with the months when the great migration of wildebeests is at a low and the probability of precipitation is at a high. We went in the beginning of April which is low season and we saw plenty of wildebeests and nary a day of rain during our week on safari. The last advice I can offer is this… sharpen your bargaining tools! A lot of people are put off by the ‘fly-catchers’ or tour touts that are swarming throughout the city of Arusha. We joked around with them quite a bit and if you can maintain that positive sense of humour with them then that whole nasty experience becomes less of a chore. Many of them can actually steer you in the direction of a good deal as well and always know which companies have a couple of vacant spots on their trucks. When you meet with the operators, tell them your budget and be firm on it. A day of pounding the streets of Arusha can save you hundreds of dollars.

This Serengeti leopard sighting completed our African Big 5

Goofin' around with the Great Masai gang

So, who did we go with and what did we see and do? We decided on a budget company that I can’t recommend enough… Great Masai Adventure. They are a family business located down a side street off Boma Road and man were they fantastic. Lota, Sidi, Eric and everyone at GMA are so nice and their professional hospitality is nothing short of impeccable. Sidi, our guide and driver, and Eric, our cook, were so much fun to be with and each did their job above and beyond our expectations. If you want an unforgettable safari experience and are on a budget, look no further than Great Masai Adventure. Your welcome! The first safari we took with them was a 4N/5D camping safari that took in the Tarangire NP, the Serengeti NP, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. The guiding, the food, the accommodation (one night was at the Panorama camp where we stayed in mud ‘igloos’), the wildlife and nature were all exceptional. We were so enchanted by our time spent in the Ngorongoro Crater (not that we weren’t by the Serengeti or Tarangire) that we booked an additional 1N/2D trip with GMA the day after we got back from our first trip out to the parks. We spent one day in between our two tours in Arusha where we recruited a couple more budget backpackers to come with us, and in return, GMA charged only $150 for each of us for the next 2 days in the crater. Great people, great company! So what did we see? Well, in terms of wildlife and nature we saw simply too much to write about. I will let the following photographs paraphrase that for me, but, as per usual, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but they don’t do justice to the actual experience of visiting these majestic parks.

Zebras among the Baobabs in Tarangire NP

Lion cub, Serengeti NP

Leopard, Serengeti NP

Hippo pool, Serengeti

Male lion, Serengeti

Serengeti scene

Another Serengeti lioness

Scenes from the Serengeti and Crater

Bull elephant, Ngorongoro

Wildebeest, Ngorongoro

Another bull in the crater

After a quick stopover in Moshi for a fleeting glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro, our last 2 weeks in Tanzania were spent on the idyllic island of Zanzibar- a short ferry ride from Dar. For the first three days we just explored the labyrinth-style streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s economic and cultural capital. It’s quite a nice town to explore with friendly people, good food, strong coffee and plenty of historical sites and amazing architecture to check out. Then it was off to the beaches. It was our initial plan to beach hop around the island for 10 days, but instead we got very comfortable in a single location on the stretch of beach known as Jambiani- thanks to some fantastic home cooking, stunning accommodation, and a wonderful hostess named Lisa (along with her 11 cats and 3 dogs).

Enjoying the beaches around Jambiani

We found the Mango Beach House after being dropped off in Jambiani and walking along its stretch of sand. Many of the accommodation options were closed during the off-season but we happened upon the best and it was open for business. Mango Beach House wouldn’t normally fall within our backpacker budget, but it was low season and Lisa gave us a rate that we couldn’t refuse. The guesthouse is immaculately decorated with the objects that Lisa has accumulated over the years of combing the beaches and the whole place feels like an art gallery. What made our stay even more memorable, and the main reason we stayed for 10 nights, was that Lisa took us out on daily sightseeing trips around the island. This was an invaluable way to really see the island and with insider knowledge to boot! She took us to the national park, low tide swimming at some secret spots, and so many beautiful beaches that we wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t for her. If you are looking for a low-key local beach experience then you can’t go wrong with Jambiani, and if you’re in Jambiani then I highly recommend staying at Mango Beach House. Tell Lisa and the guys we say hi! While Zanzibar is an island that is feeling the pressure that mass tourism has placed upon it, and one of those places you wish you would have had the pleasure of visiting 15 years ago, it remains a worthwhile destination to check out or maybe even linger in for a couple of weeks. After a few weeks of touring around mainland Tanzania, you will definitely appreciate it! We spent a couple more nights in Stone Town before catching an early morning flight back to Namibia via Nairobi and Jo’berg. Our second visit to Namibia and our return to South Africa would be the last leg of our trip to Africa. There would be some amazing experiences yet to come. One more blog post to go…

Confessions of a (terrible) Travel Blogger

A fish eagle swoops down for a kill over Lake Malawi

So, it's been over 4 months since my last post and nearly 3 months since we returned to Canada. Since the last post we travelled through Zambia and into Malawi and then spent a little better than a month in Tanzania. After Tanzania we flew back to Namibia where we spent another 3 weeks before traveling overland back to Cape Town where we enjoyed our remaining days until we had to catch our return flight home. So what happened to those blog posts? Why has so much time elapsed? Herein lies my confession… Traveling is hard work! We put in long, exhausting days, often spanning from before sunrise to well after dark. Africa offered us little time to take a leisurely breath let alone the time to write about our experiences. And it is those daily experiences that inspires the writer of travel- if you wait too long, the new experiences push the older ones to the back burner and so forth. Once you've let a week slip by (or two, or three, or more) it becomes an overwhelming endeavor to get caught up. This is the position I found myself in this past trip, and rather than take the time required to catch up on the then overwhelming task, I instead decided to just enjoy everything Africa had in store for us. Travel writing is merely a supplement to our travels- just as photography is only a hobby. This is not my work, no financial gain on offer. I do it to share travel wisdom, to keep friends and family in the know, and to inspire travel in general- just as I look to the blogs of other travel writers for advice and inspiration. So this is my confession (inundated with excuses)… I have been a bad travel blogger! BAD BLOGGER!

But let's put the past behind us shall we? For all my short-comings I have one redeeming quality: I don't like to leave things undone! I will finish posting on the last couple of months of our journey through Africa, however, in an attempt to save precious time, the following posts will be word-sparing and photo-heavy (with the exception of this here post). Let's consider them a representation of our travels through imagery (supplemented with a few descriptions, anecdotes, and some information that could possibly be passed-off as advice).

With the exception of Vic Falls, Zambia for us was just a place to get our visas in order for Malawi. Then it was a 30-hour bus hopping fiasco from Lusaka to Lilongwe and onto Nkhata Bay- our home in Malawi. In Nkhata Bay we stayed at the very excellent Mayoka Village, located right next to the run-down Butterfly Space. Business is booming at Mayoka and it's not hard to realize why. The place is just stunning- great dorms and private rooms at great prices, great free activities on offer, a great travel family atmosphere, and food that will pin you down in Malawi longer than you had ever anticipated. The owners, Gary and Kathryn, also do great not-for-profit work in the community with the money they generate from Mayoka, which, along with the sound of waves crashing outside your room at night, may help you sleep better! I would also like to give a shout out to Joy who runs a fantastic guesthouse in nearby Mzuzu. If you're ever looking for some clean digs in Mzuzu or just want some amazing and authentic Korean eats, then drop into Joy's Place- you will also be supporting two of the nicest people in Malawi. But Malawi and Mayoka for us was all about the interesting people we met and of course the nightly beer-induced benders!

First there was Pierre and Jacqueline who we first encountered in Lusaka. Pierre is one those guys you meet that have had more than their fair share of life experiences. This guy has met Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. He was offered a job over dinner with Sir David Attenborough (which he turned down). He ran a propaganda publishing company during the Cold War era and participated in some weird spy-like stuff that eventually got him shot! He led a documentary expedition through the Venezualan jungles which resulted in a capsized boat and a subsequent week of trying to survive in the harsh environs that they found themselves in (which incidentally worked out for Pierre but not for all of his team). I could go on about this fascinating French Canadian, or instead, if you can speak or at least read French Canadian, you can read his self-published work of compiled stories “10 Aventures…”. I'm sure it wouldn't disappoint!

Then there was Javier who had been on the road for more than 4 years already… on his bicycle! This guy has looped the world on two wheels and has had many amazing and some terrifying experiences. Total respect to these kinds of modern day adventurers. Dori, a wee little Polish thing of a girl had been hitch-hiking across the world for 3 years. One part brave, one part naïve in my eyes, but good on her! We also ran into a guy who couldn't even be burdened with wheels at all- he simply just decided to walk from Cape Town to Malawi (so far). Ain't no big thang right? I could go on about the people we met in Malawi but I believe you get the point! Malawi for some strange reason is a melting pot of the World's crazies!

I didn't bring out my camera gear much at all between Vic Falls and Tanzania. Maybe it was because we spent the majority of time either in or enroute to large and not particularly picturesque African cities. Maybe it was the distractions of talking for hours on end with the interesting people we encountered. Maybe it was the heavy but brief showers that would spring up with little notice, or more plausibly it was that Malawi was a place that we just decided to unwind in for a week with no real travel obligations other than enjoying good times with good people…

BAD TRAVEL BLOGGER!

 

Chobe & Hwange… our way!

A lion cub crosses our path in Hwange N.P., Zimbabwe

We had been in Africa for more than a month now and just completed a three-week overland camping safari that took us from Cape Town to Victoria Falls- a distance of more than 5,600 kilometers. The past three weeks had been hectic with little time to plan or prepare for our solo travels to come. Finally we had some time to do just that. We stayed on the Zimbabwean side of Vic Falls just one more afternoon after our tour had ended. There we went to the vast handicraft market to see what we could get in exchange for our two pillows that we had bought to make our nights camping a little more comfortable (our tour leader had previously told us that we could barter our unwanted stuff in the market of Victoria Falls once we were done with it… a fun and interesting solution we figured!) All the hawkers were pretty happy to see us and our pillows and the offers began immediately. After some time viewing each and everyone’s stall the negotiations were on. Hyo Jin warmed up to a giraffe made from bashed metal. We were happy to unload our two bulky pillows, but now a slightly scaled-down version of the world’s tallest animal was strapped to the side of my wife’s backpack for the duration of our trip! Hmmm. It was fun interacting with everyone at the market though. Other than the market and of course the falls themselves, there is little reason to linger in the town of Victoria Falls. It is a very expensive place to sleep and eat- especially for what you get in return. We were joined with one other girl from our tour and together the three of us walked from Zimbabwe to Zambia that evening, admiring the falls from the bridge as we passed. After clearing customs it was a short taxi ride into Livingstone. Livingstone is a much nicer base to explore the falls from with more amenities and sleeping options, at least for budget backpackers anyways. We checked into Fawlty Towers, a well-run backpackers in a convenient location in Livingstone. It has many nice dorms and private rooms, a self-catering kitchen, a great pool and bar, and when the Internet is on, it’s on! A nice place to unpack your bag for a few days, relax, and get a plan going. Our place offered free shuttles every morning to the Falls which we capitalized on once to check them out on the Zambian side. The falls are impressive from both sides but we did prefer the Zambian views over the Zimbabwean ones (refer to the last blog post for more details). Our backpackers was just a few shops down from the excellent Cafe Zambezi restaurant which we took advantage of on several occasions when we didn’t feel like cooking. Highly recommended.

Elephants making a splash, Chobe N.P., Botswana

After a couple days of rest and planning we were restless again. We were in Africa and we wanted to see some more animals. On our overland tour we had only enjoyed one morning safari and one boat cruise in Chobe National Park, and being in Livingstone we were still only 100 kilometers away. It was an easy decision on where to go. We caught a shared taxi to the border (about one hour and $5 for the both of us) and then a 10-minute ferry across the river and we were back in Botswana. We were at our accommodation at the Thebe River Safaris (a nice campground offering cheap safaris and river cruises) by noon, set up camp, went into Kasane to get some pula, and then booked our evening cruise along the Chobe River. The river cruise was once again beautiful and this time there were about 20 less of us on the boat. Our first sunset cruise was probably more spectacular in terms of wildlife numbers, but we still saw more than a hundred elephants, many hippos, and lots of other wildlife along the river’s banks to keep our excitements piqued and our cameras clicking. There is no such thing as a bad river cruise on the Chobe River. Back at the campsite we ran into another Nomad tour doing the exact trip as the one we had just completed the week before. This was a stroke of good luck for us. We didn’t bring along sleeping mats and our surrogate Nomad family was there to help us out. Once a Nomad family member, always a Nomad family member! The next morning we woke while it was still well dark, our morning safari began at 5:45.

 

Up close with a lioness, Chobe N.P.

While our second river cruise wasn’t quite as good as our first, our second land safari blew our first away! We saw so many more animals this time than just a week prior, but that’s just how the dice roll with nature. We saw many lions on this game drive and at least a hundred more elephants. It was just amazing at times how much ‘life’ was going on around us. We saw plenty of all the park’s grazers and most of Chobe’s predators as well, although we still hadn’t seen our leopard. Only the leopard had kept us from completing the African “Big 5” checklist (which are the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and that elusive leopard). A spectacular morning game drive though to say the least. We were very happy with our decision to return to Chobe and now felt content with the time we had spent there. We were also very pleased with how inexpensively we could do it on our own. A safari in Africa can still be done on a backpacker’s budget. When we got back to our campsite there were a bunch of Rangers around attempting to dispose of a black mamba snake that had wandered through. They shot it multiple times until it hung lifeless from a branch. It was a beautiful snake, but the Rangers explained that they are far too venomous to keep alive in such close proximity to humans. That was the second snake we watched being put down by Rangers (the first was a spitting cobra in Etosha) and I still think that a greater effort could be made to keep these animals alive. Anyways, it was time to push forward and head back to Zimbabwe once again, we still had plans to visit one more park before returning to Zambia.

 

Hwange waterhole scene

A couple hours after leaving Kasane and we were back in Vic Falls. In town we befriended a very kind local who offered us the use of his 4X4 for the next couple of days so we could go on a self-drive safari to Hwange National Park, a three-hour (200 kilometer) drive south of Victoria Falls. We left early the next morning and were at the park boundary by 9 o’clock. But before we even entered the gate we encountered of first pride of lions. We watched as eight lions (including our first two lion cubs) crossed the road right in front of us (we had to slow the truck to allow them to do so) and stroll through the grasses to rest under the shade of a tree on the other side. We spent about an hour with them before carrying on into the park proper. We had later learned that we were once again very lucky since no lions had been spotted in or around the park for the past few days. We spent the rest of the day self-driving through the Park, searching for more animals. Each national park we had visited thus far had been so different. Namibia’s Etosha is predominantly dry except for the few waterholes scattered throughout the Park. Botswans’s Chobe on the other other hand is lush and forested thanks to the constant flow of the river that runs through it. Hwange is a cross between the two and at times even resembles the savannahs of the Serengeti. It is a nice blend of open spaces and thick forests, trees and grasslands. Self-driving is a completely different experience than being a passive passenger on a guided safari. You now have to find the wildlife and when you do it’s you who gets to decide how close you can approach it (for better or for worse). We probably missed out on some animals that the trained eyes of a guide might have seen, but I think we did pretty good and learned from our past safaris well. We saw all the park’s major mammals except for the very rarely seen cheetahs, and, yet again, the leopards. Even though we saw each and every species before, it still felt new and exciting because of the new landscapes we saw them in, and of course because we were the ones who found them. In the mid-afternoon we ran into an eccentric old man named Vincent who tended to one of the Park’s campsites. He was an interesting character who tipped us off about the location of a large male lion in the area. The male was a only a few hundred meters away but already fast asleep for the day somewhere amidst the grasses. We couldn’t wait for the cooler evening hours for him to move again (you are not allowed to drive after dark in the Park and we needed to get back to our camp), but the lead was a good place to start early the next morning.

 

This one nearly had a tire track tattoo

We were waiting at the Park gate the next morning when it opened and drove the 60 kilometers back towards Vincent’s campsite, allthewhile passing giraffes and zebras and the like. The whole time in Hwange we only saw a handful of other safari vehicles in the Park- it was after all low season (everywhere we had been in Africa so far) and Hwange does not see near the numbers of tourists as some of Africa’s more prestigious parks. Yet as we neared Vincent’s campsite we could see some other trucks (mainly research vehicles) circling the vicinity and we knew they must have been looking for the same male we had come to find. It didn’t look like any of the vehicles were having any luck and neither were we for that matter. We were almost out of time for the day (we had to be out of the park gate by 10 o’clock or risked being charged another full day) when we decided to try a small sandy track that forked off the main one. The sun was bright in the sky when my eyes strained to adjust to something in the shadows before us. Unsure of what it was, I instinctively hit the brakes. And lucky I did! Not three meters on the road in front of us, sleeping in the shade of a tree, was the large male we had been looking for. I couldn’t believe that I had almost hit the thing! It was yet again fortunate that just moments before we had stopped to admire a hornbill and I had not yet gathered up much speed. Anyways, there he was. And he remained dead asleep as the dust from our sudden stop settled around him. I maneuvered our truck into a better viewing position to the side of him (about 3 meters away), and only then did he wake. He stared at us for a few moments (completely unbothered by our presence) and moved to another tree on the other side of the track. And there we watched him for only a few minutes longer… it really was time to go. Once we reunited with the main road, we could still see the same trucks we saw earlier. Still circling, still searching for the male lion we just nearly ran over!

The beautiful male we found, Hwange N.P.

On our own we visited two national parks, each within easy reach from Victoria Falls. More importantly, we did them in a very inexpensive way. In both parks we saw a staggering amout of animals. Our time in Chobe cost us under $200 with camping, game viewing, and public transportation for the both of us. Hwange was only slightly more expensive simply because we had to pay for our own fuel and we opted not to camp. Either way, we had great experiences- experiences done our way. After we returned our truck we hopped across the border again, back to Livingstone. A couple days later we would take the ‘Golden Jubilee’ train from Livingstone to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital (a ride that was supposed to take 10 hours and actually took 18). There we would have to wait until Hyo Jin’s visa was processed for our next destination. Malawi here we come!

My own private waterhole, Hwange N.P.

Overlanding Africa (Pt.2)

A Baobab in Botswana

On our thirteenth day we left Namibia and crossed into Botswana. There were now only 17 members remaining in our Nomad family: 12 gals and 5 guys, and of those 5 guys only 2 were now named “Chris”! The main draws to Botswana are to visit two massive swaths of land both located in the far north of the country: the Okavango Delta and the excellent Chobe National Park. But the distances in Afica are great, so our first night we camped just outside of Ghanzi in an area inhabited by the San people. This was the only campsite in which “downgrading” our accommodation was an option and it was the only time on the trip when we opted not to camp. This was because we were given the option to spend the night in a “traditional” San-style hut. Yes it was made of mud and had a grass thatched roof, but that is where the traditional ended. It had two comfortable cots inside with mattresses and a power plug so we could charge our tech gear. It was nice though and we slept very well. That night we were treated to a very unorganized bushman dance and the disorganization didn’t end there. We signed up to go on a bushman walk the next morning but after waiting over an hour for the bushmen to show we cancelled our spots out of principle. A few members of our group did partake once the bushmen finally came, and, I have to admit, I feel like we missed out on a good time. Principles!

Our mokoro 'polers' leading us through the Okavango Delta

Back into Luther and on to Etsha, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. Once there we unloaded all necessary equipment and personal gear off Luther and packed them into tractor-pulled carts. We would say goodbye to Luther for the next 3 nights because we were about to enter the Okavango- a massive area of swamps and waterways, and anyways, it’s no place for a truck! The next morning we loaded our gear this time into boats which took it and us further into the delta. Our final destination was Nomad’s own permanent tented camp “Jumbo Junction” (aptly named as it sits on the “crossroads” {waterways actually} of a popular elephant migration route) and here we would spend the next two nights. More than 11 cubic kilometers of water flow from the Okavango River and into the delta every year, irrigating more than 15,000 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert. The resulting waterways are an important migration route for many nomadic animals. The delta is also home to the Moremi Game Reserve (which unfortunately we did not visit). The Okavango Delta was one of the places that we were looking forward to the most on this overland safari, but I have to say we were a little disappointed. It wasn’t that the Delta region was disappointing, it is on the contrary a very beautiful place. It was that the camp, where it was and the activities on offer, that was a disappointment. We did get into traditional dugout canoes called mokoros and the polers took us through some picturesque canals which led to a large pool inhabited by a permanent population of hippos, and that was all well and nice. But after these short trips were over there was little for us to do back in camp as we were completely surrounded by marshlands. Other than the aforementioned hippos, some nice species of birds, and some frogs (that were the size of your pinky fingernail and very cute), there really wasn’t much else in the way of wildlife. I think that’s what the problem was for me. Whenever I saw images in magazines or documentaries on TV about the Okavango Delta, it was all about the scores of wildlife that inhabit the region and this just wasn’t what we saw at all. This was the only time on the trip that I felt that Nomad could have done better. Anyways, to amuse ourselves back at camp we had mokoro races and enjoyed sundowners in the natural pool. At least the camp was well stocked with beer!

Nile crocodile, Chobe N.P.

Photo-play with a lilac-breasted roller, Chobe N.P.

One of thousands in Chobe

Day 17 and we were reunited with Luther once again. We crossed back into Namibia and travelled through the Caprivi Strip en-route to Chobe National Park, back on the Botswana side. The next day we boarded safari trucks and went on an early morning game drive. Chobe is a stunning park and very lush when compared to say Etosha. On our drive we found a few elephants, hippos, a couple lions, and some very beautiful birdlife. Of course there were also plenty of impalas, zebras, baboons, warthogs, mongooses, and other critters as well. We were also very fortunate to have a rare encounter with a pack of 10 painted (wild) dogs just a few meters from our truck. The game drive on land was nice but the very best way to see Chobe is on its namesake River in the hours leading up to sunset. And this is exactly what we did later that same afternoon. This is when the park erupts with wildlife. Our Nomad crew boarded a large boat with a fine deck and set off onto the Chobe River for a 4 hour sunset cruise. In those four hours we saw over 300 elephants, a few giraffes, plenty of hippos, some crocodiles, and various grazing antelopes. It was so nice to watch all the animals interacting with each other and their environs along the riverside. Elephants were drinking and bathing and the young were practicing their wrestling techniques. Hippos were walking along the banks slipping in and out of the water as required to regulate their body temperatures. Kingfishers were perched upon branches dangling over the river, swooping down every couple of minutes for a fresh snack. Everywhere you looked some incredible display of nature was taking place. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of Botswana for us. But our single day in Chobe was sadly over and the next morning we had to pack up once again, but this would be the last time- there was only one more sleep left and Nomad arranged very nice rooms for us in the town of Victoria Falls.

Wild dogs, Chobe N.P.

It was just a short drive from Chobe to the Zimbabwean border and onto Victoria Falls. We arrived in Vic Falls before noon and headed directly to the main attraction; one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site… the largest waterfalls on Earth. These things are big! They’re 1.7 kilometers long, 108 meters high and during the wet season (like when we were there), 3000 tonnes of water per second spill over it’s edges. It really is an impressive sight. The locals still refer to it as “Mosi-oa-Tunya” which means “the smoke that thunders” and there was a lot of smoke thundering while we were there. In fact, maybe a little too much. There were only a few vantage points along the footpath along the falls where you could really appreciate it and get a good look at it. Most of the way it was hidden in a veil of heavy spray and you were drenched from head to feet as a result. The falls straddle the borders between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Zimbabwe has the most of the falls, but on the Zambian side you can get much closer to them. Both are very beautiful in their own ways and people are usually split on which side they prefer. We preferred the Zambian side simply because there were more diverse views to appreciate it from. The Zambian side is also $10 dollars cheaper to visit. We visited the Zambian side once our Nomad tour was over and were already staying in the town of Livingstone.

The varying views of Victoria Falls

Vic Falls from the Zambian side

After we finished with the falls we were taken to a tour company that organizes all sorts of ways to separate you from your money! Members of our group went bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, river boarding, and some went walking with lions. We and two others from our group took a 15-minute helicopter flight over the falls. The flight was good (and expensive), but my only advice if you choose this activity is don’t sit up front next to the pilot. My initial thought was that would be the best place to sit to get the best views and best shots from. Wrong! There are too many instrument panels in the way and then there is the pilot too who blocks your whole left side. Just saying. The others in the back seats had a great flight though and I’m sure they got some fantastic photos. That night we stayed at our hotel for dinner and there we all had to say our final goodbyes. It was kind of a sombre evening, much more so than our last group dinner in Windhoek. But we had all spent the last 20 days together and shared a lot of memorable experiences with one another and saying goodbye is never a fun thing to do. For most, they would be flying back to their countries of origin a day later, some a week. We on the other hand still had a few months to go. Until that point everything had been done for us. We were driven in comfort from destination to destination and at each destination our accommodations had been arranged in advance. Meals were provided and ready for us at set times. Everything was explained, all questions answered. If we had problems, someone would help solve them. But now it was time to set-off on our own, and while the Nomad motto was “it’s not a holiday, it’s an adventure“, it sure felt like a holiday to us! The real adventure was just beginning.

Overlanding Africa (Pt.1)

Sunrise from on top of Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft NP

For this leg of our journey through Africa we did something we’ve never done before… we took an organized tour! We’ve always been of the mindset that tours were for the unadventurous- surely anything a company could put together we could do better and more economically! We are very independent travellers who don’t like to compromise in terms of where we go and how much time we spend in a certain place. And then there is the worry about getting along with all the others who are on a tour with you. Well, we did a lot of research via the Internet before leaving Canada and we happened across a tour company who offered overland camping trips taking in almost all of the places that we wanted to visit (for the most part). Camping seemed like a great solution in keeping costs down. Having never been to this continent before, we felt that this would be an ideal way to acclimatize to Africa before setting off on our own for the months to follow. So we swallowed our pride and booked a 20-day overland safari which would begin in Cape Town and take us through the western reaches of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and finish nearly 6,000 kilometers later in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The company we went with was Nomad Africa Adventure Tours (hereafter, “Nomad”). For this trip we each paid $2,000 CAD- so about $100 per person per day, and this included all transportation, accommodation (predominantly camping), food, and all attraction entrance fees as well as all game drives through the National Parks we visited. We would soon discover that in Africa we couldn’t have done it any cheaper on our own.

Our Nomad family posing in front of Luther in the Etosha Pan

We left Cape Town on the morning of February 15th after a brief rendezvous at the Nomad office. The first day was light on driving and we ended in the Cederberg region of South Africa. There we introduced ourselves and got to know each other a little better while hanging around in the swimming pool and later over dinner and some complimentary wine tasting. The following day we pushed onto the Namibian border, camping on the South African side along the picturesque Orange River. There we swam in the river and drank at the very excellent riverside bar all the while getting to know one another all the more. I think it was on that night that our greatest fear was put to rest- we would get along just fine with everyone in our group! Our group consisted of 23 travellers from a diverse sampling of countries: 14 women, 9 guys, and of those guys, four were named “Chris”. We had a guide named “Gertie”, our captain, “Cosmas”, and our ‘food engineer’, “Menzeli”- all Zimbabwean born and bred. Altogether 26 strong traveling through Southern Africa in our beloved overland truck named “Luther” (Nomad names each truck in their fleet after a dead musician, ours was named after the late Mr. Vandross). Gertie was absolutely amazing- always laughing, full of humour herself, and just a wonderful person and a brilliant guide too. Cosmas drove tirelessly through the African heat and always got us to our destinations on time and in one piece- a really nice guy as well! Menzeli always amazed us with what he could prepare under such primitive conditions. We were fed very well along the way. Luther was a very comfortable and spacious truck. Each of us had our own oversized locker that could easily store our backpacks and anything else we brought along. There was a charging station which allowed us to keep the batteries of all our devices charged and ready, and in the belly there was room for all of our tents, mattresses, chairs, tables, and all of our cooking and cleaning gear. A great vehicle custom made for long distance travel through Africa… but be careful not to call it a bus (that was the naughty “B-word”, punishable with campsite chores)! Each day four members of the group would be selected for “adventure group”, an exciting name assigned to the four people who were held responsible for cleaning up the dishes and other various tasks around camp. We were routinely and affectionately reminded that “this is an adventure, not a holiday!”

Our first night in Namibia was spent at the beautiful Fish River Canyon- the largest in Africa and second largest in the world, rivaled in size only by the Grand Canyon in America. Before the Namibian border we saw little in the way of foreign (to us) wildlife- springboks were probably the most exciting. But soon after entering Namibia, and definitely around the hills and valleys surrounding the Fish River Canyon, the number of grazing springboks grew, zebras became common and so did oryxes. It was here where we met our first San bushman who took us on a walk through the desert attempting to teach us how their people survive in the harsh conditions in which they live. It was also camping in this area where we could first really appreciate the massive, clear, and bright starry sky that would become a nightly norm.

900-year-old acacia trees inside of Dead Vlei

The next morning we broke camp and drove over 500 kilometers north into the Namib-Naukluft National Park- a highlight of Namibia and all of Africa for that matter. The Namib-Naukluft N.P. covers an area larger than Switzerland making it the largest game park in the whole of Africa. But this is one park that isn’t at all about the game, it’s the surreal desert landscapes and burnt orange coloured sand dunes that are the main attraction. The dunes are the oldest in the world and among the tallest as well with many over 200 meters and some nearly reaching a towering 400 meters in height. We did a late afternoon walk through Sesriem Canyon which was nice but not so spectacular. The real show-stopper came the next day when we climbed up Dune 45 (each notable dune is assigned a name or at least a number) to watch the sun rise over the surrounding dunes. Sunrise and sunset is by far the best time to be in the dunes, not only because it’s the times of the day when the temperatures are bearable, but mainly because these are the times when the dunes display their most vibrant colours. Crimson morphs into reds which turn to shades of orange and then give way to a spectrum of yellow. It is truly one of nature’s most breathtaking performances. By the time we got to Dead Vlei it was about 2 hours later and about 40 degrees hotter! Most of our group paid it some quick respects and retreated back to the truck in search of shade. We on the other hand lingered. This has always been one of those places on my travel ‘bucket list’, and, now that I was there, I couldn’t seem to tear myself away from it. The dead camel thorn acacias that punctuate the cracked white clay pan are ancient- some over 900 years old. When juxtaposed against the vast orange dunes, the images created are mesmerizing. It was sublime having the whole place to ourselves. After Dead Vlei we made a brief stop at Sossusvlei before joining the rest of our group back at Luther.

One of the incredible landscapes of Dead Vlei

Beautiful Spitzkoppe!

Our next stop, after a quick photo-op at the Tropic of Capricorn, was the coastal town of Swakopmund, 250 kilometers to the north. This was our first multi-day respite from our hectic travel schedule. Here we were given rooms (a welcomed break from camping) and free time to sign up for a host of outdoor activities on offer. Members of our group went skydiving (some sporting animal onesies), quading through the dunes and sandboarding. We opted to be lame and save money! Instead, we walked around the town and beach and did a lot of nothing. Swakopmund is a German town built in Bavarian style (so they say), but in our opinion the place was just weird. It was low season and the wide streets were totally devoid of any cars and people. It felt really artificial in a Truman Show kind of way. We lost one of our group members in Swakopmund but picked up a couple more as well. We were now a group of 16 gals, 8 guys, and half of those guys were still named “Chris”! Anyways, that was Swakopmund.

Day 8 of our tour took us to beautiful Spitzkoppe. The mountains and rock formations of Spitzkoppe seem to just jet out from the desert floor. The smooth granite that forms these mountains are over 700 million years old and have a lengthy human history as well. We were taken on a desert walk by a local Damara bushman who led us to some ancient Khoi San rock paintings and showed us how we can murder someone with the poison from the milk plant. Very informative! But Spitzkoppe is gorgeous and a fun place to release your inner monkey… but fu@k was it hot! We had to leave already the next morning which was one of my major regrets of the trip. I think Spitzkoppe was worthy of at least one more day and night, but this was a tour and this was the compromise. The next day we visited a Himba Tribe village en-route to Outjo which was something I was really looking forward to but something I was ultimately disappointed in. I guess I was expecting something more authentic, but this visit to this particular tribe was the same as so many other cultural visits we’ve done in the past. The Himba people, except for the children, didn’t seem too excited that we were there at all and you got the feeling that they just wanted the food and supplies that we had brought for them or for us to buy some of their homemade souvenirs. We later learned that this particular tribe wasn’t even from that area- they were just relocated there by a local business owner in hopes to attract more tourists. Boooo! What made it all better was knowing that our next stop was Etosha National Park.

The abundance of life at an Etosha waterhole

Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier park in terms of wildlife watching and no doubt it is among the elite of all African game parks as well. The park surrounds the massive Etosha pan which is predominantly dry except for a few weeks during the wet season. This is the allure of Etosha- it is a desperately dry place so viewing animals is fairly easy as long as you can locate the sure sources of water. I can’t even describe the amount of animals we saw during our two-and-a-half days in Etosha… but I’ll give you a brief rundown. We watched a herd of nearly 40 elephants tramp through the dusty plains on their way to a waterhole (and many more throughout the park). We saw a total of 15 lions and 10 rhinos in various locations around the park. Zebras, springboks, giraffes, oryxes, impalas, hyenas, jackals, warthogs and kudus seemed to be everywhere. We even shared our campsite with a spitting cobra one night! The birdlife was also very impressive. Our campground featured a spot-lit waterhole where you could watch the wildlife come and go during the evenings and well into the night. This gave me an opportunity to test the sensitivity settings of my new camera (it did well). During the night you could hear the roaring of the lions all around. Etosha was most definitely another highlight of Namibia and of the tour as a whole. If you had to choose just one park to visit in Southern Africa, this just might be the one. Here are some reasons why…

The evening stretch, Etosha

Nighttime shot of a black rhino at the campsite waterhole

Yellow-billed hornbill, Etosha

Day 12 and we found ourselves in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It seemed like a clean and relatively pleasant city (by African standards) with streets and avenues named after dictators of the world, but we didn’t linger long. We were put-up at a very nice hotel for the night, the air con a blessing. That evening we went out to Joe’s Beer House- an long-standing institution in Windhoek. There we ate animals that we admired in Etosha, drank lots of beer and Jagermeister, and said goodbye to seven more of our group members, including 2 named “Chris”. A bittersweet ending to an amazing trip through Namibia. Eight more days left to conquer Botswana and Victoria Falls!

An overview of our trip