The Great Migration - Tanzania
Sitting quietly in our Toyota Landcruiser, hidden behind a large Acacia tree on the Tanzanian side of the Mara River the air is full of apprehension. Behind us, likely close to a million Wildebeests have already crossed the river and are continuing into the Serengeti grazing lands. Directly in front of us is the Mara River, about 100 yards across to the other side tens of thousands of Wildebeests have gathered on the Kenyan side, in the Masai Mara, to cross at a shallow spot in between two sets of rapids. The stench of death fills the still African air from rotting carcasses of previous failed crossings. Crocodiles lie mostly submerged hidden from the sight of the herd; the herd knows they are there and likely knows we are here as well. Off to one side of us is the 'lost ones', 32 young calves bellowing for their mothers across the river. The calves have gotten separated from their mothers during a previous crossing this morning and the mothers have either moved on ahead or were frightened back or didn't survive the river. The herd is nervously scanning the banks for signs of danger, which is everywhere but more and more Wildebeest are lining up along the banks pushing for the river. Maybe 10000 now but it could be more line up on the bank. Small groups of 5 or 6 step down off the steep dirt ledge and slowly work their way towards rocks of the river bank. One by one each will lose their courage and run hard back up the bank and jump back into the crush of the herd. Finally one brave Wildebeest dives into the water and the whole herd follows maybe 6 wide following one after the next. Our driver yells 'Hang on' as he flicks the key and we lunge out of the trees at full speed to the river bank for a closer view. The scene is spectacular; this is one of the most dangerous times in the life of the Wildebeest, and they all want to spend as little time in the crocodile infested river as possible. Some are strong swimmers and some struggle in the current but a miss step on the rocks will mean a broken leg and the rest of herd will trample on over and by, there is no stopping now. Crocs emerge from the water creating more panic in the swimmers; the first few reach the far bank and struggle up the steep dirt bank with all the energy they have left throwing reactionary kicks behind here and there just in case a croc was on their heels. They hit the Serengeti plains running at top speed and the noise of thundering hoofs fills the air and drowns out the bellows of the excited 'lost ones'. They don't stop running for at least 500 yards and quickly the area starts to fill with the herd. Back in the river the struggle to survive continues. A large croc moves in on a smaller one and the squeal fills the air for a brief moment then stops, calve and croc submerge into the murky water. A very small calf less than a month old enters the swift water and very quickly the current carries it downstream away from the pack. It struggles against the current with all of its might to make headway but is only holding its own. My wife sits down and can no longer watch. The banks of the river downstream are full of crocodiles delighting in the scene and they sit lazily sunning themselves waiting for the current to do their dirty work. The little calve is determined however and musters a final strong push ahead and after what seems like an eternity drags itself up out of the water on to the rocky bank his body shaking; he is so drained he can barely stand. He is not out of danger yet as he still needs to negotiate the steep dirt bank and not get crushed by the panicking herd and luckily he makes it to the top. A cheer rises from our vehicle.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Finally, after 12 days of hunting in 5 National Parks spread across half a continent, Jenson, our Botswana born guide had done it. He had tracked a leopard in a tree about 100 yards from our vehicle. Perched 20 feet above the sandy soil, sitting perfectly still and perfectly camouflaged, I needed to stare at the spot he was pointing to. Then a slight movement of her head from within the Acacia tree canopy and I had her in my camera lens. After a while she slowly made her way out of the tree and onto the ground. Her arrival was not quite as graceful as she had hoped as a small flock of Guinea Fowl spot her and alert the neighbourhood with their shrill cackle. Jenson points out all of the giraffe are telling us where she is now; I look around and there are at least a dozen heads above the canopy and each head is facing exactly where she is walking. Prior to her exit from the tree the giraffes were staring at us.
On The Chobe River, the border between Namibia and Botswana
Directly beneath my fishing rod and less than 5 feet off the side of our small aluminum boat it crested and then dove back into the water. I said 'Whoa, what the hell was that? That is the biggest fish I had ever seen!' A few seconds later and 60 feet from the boat it surfaced again for a second time then disappeared. With a laugh our guide calmly said 'Hippo. We need to move.' This is the Chobe River, whose reed banks and sandy bottom is home of hippos, elephants, crocodiles and the reason for this day's excursion, the rare and elusive Tiger fish. Tigers are fresh water game fish found in this region. They are powerful swimmers typically about the size of a Bass, green and silver, red tail and red fins, with huge teeth that remain visible when the fish's mouth is closed. They cruise these waters and feed off smaller Bream or Tilapia. A half hour prior to the hippo event while reeling in a small 18 inch Tiger a larger Tiger shot straight up from the bottom of the river and literally bit our hooked fish in half. While we never did land the huge Tiger that bit our fish in two, Mike, Harriet, and I managed to successfully catch and release 8 Tigers.
In a local bar, near the fishing village of Mbalastinte, Namibia
Happy hour on the Caprivi Strip; the fishermen have gathered for their end of the day ritual at a local pub. Zimbabwe flavored Rumba music blares loudly from the speakers perched on the wooden porch; the near reggae style bass lines force feet and lower body to move with the rhythms. A few of the men are dancing in the hot afternoon sun with their drink of choice in hand ' Carling Black Label Lager. Served cold in huge quart sized bottles the old Canadian beer has found a most unlikely home in this African region ' apparently favored for its crisp taste, its high 5.5% alcohol content, and its name which became popular with the blue collar working anti-apartheid crowd. 'I'll have a Black Label.' US$2 a quart is a decent price and I stand in the sun and make chat with a local to hopefully trade my story of this beer from Canada for the his story of Colonel Caprivi the name sake of this oddly shaped area of land in Namibia. I tell him Carling Bassett is the heiress of one of Canada's richest families. Her father John Bassett named newly born baby Carling after the brewery he had just acquired in the 60s ' she was named after the beer we were drinking. Darling Carling, as she would become nicknamed by the Canadian media of the day, was a very pretty and athletic blond gal and while in her teens went on to become Canada's greatest female tennis player ranked in the top ten in the world tennis tour in the 70s rivalling the likes of Chris Evert and Billy Jean King. The media loved her in Canada. Today the Black Label Lager has faded in popularity and I have not drunk one anywhere for at least 15 years. To find Darling Carling's lager in Namibia of all places is crazy. But then this is the Caprivi Strip and this area has been renowned as one of the most politically bizarre places on earth; an oddly shaped area of land 34 kms wide and 300 kms long jutting out from the north eastern part of Namibia, the Caprivi Strip links the country to Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia & northern Botswana. This strip of land was one of the most sought after pieces of real estate in the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s as it contains the access to the head waters of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers which drain all the water from the Okavango delta and the interior of the African continent to the Indian Ocean and in fact is the only major river system that drains the African continent into the Indian ocean. Colonel Caprivi believed this area would be strategically important to ship goods up and back. It was this thought that became the basis for arguably one of the worst land deals ever made in history. Colonel Caprivi, a German diplomat would convince Germany to trade away Zanzibar and parts of coastal Tanzania and Mozambique to the British for control of the Caprivi Strip. The Colonel's blunder 'the one thing that would stand in the way of the planned German waterway to the African interior: Victoria Falls - no vessel could navigate the Zambezi River from the interior to the Indian Ocean due the 300 foot drop of the falls. The local tells me of how this region has become very important to his country because of tourism in the Chobe National Park directly across the river in Botswana. His people hope the government will one day make the Caprivi Strip a land reserve for the animals as well. On August 8th 2013, the Namibian government officially renamed the area The Zambezi Region in a move to eradicate the remnants of its German colonial history perhaps forever removing Caprivi's blunder from popular history. To date, Darling Carling's Black Label Lager endures as the Namibian people's beer of choice ' a newly found irony in which my mind's eye is seeing a pretty white blonde Canadian girl when I hear 'Black Label Lager' isn't lost on this supporter of the 'global world'. Cheers.
Sunset over the Chobe River ' Botswana
Our guide sets all 80 horse power of our flat bottomed aluminum 'gator boat' into the current and around the bend in the river. As we crest the bend he sharply backs off the motor and we silently coast into the leeward toward a sandy beach. Several elephants are off in the distance blowing sand up into the air so that it lands over their backs. A red sun is setting behind them and the reflection on the waveless water is perfect. Just then a small herd of elephants emerge from the trees and walk to the water and less than a minute later 2 more herds come. We are sitting quietly in perhaps the most satisfying photo I have ever taken, at least 30 elephants drinking and playing in the red sunset. It is a stunningly beautiful picture of nature.
The Zambezi Queen
We have spent 4 days afloat on the sailing vessel Zambezi Queen cruising on the Chobe River which borders Botswana to the south and Namibia to the north. Logistically this is a rather unusual area of the world to travel; border crossings are abundant between Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. This is known as the passport killer zone where each country not only demands you line up and have your passport stamped on the way in but they also demand you line up and have your passport stamped upon exit. Toss in travel visas, national park gate entries, and assorted other security checks it can be tiring! But it is worth it as at the end of all of this immigration insanity lays the wonderfully appointed Zambezi Queen managed by a rugged South African former rugby player and all around good guy, Wayne. His crew are from Namibia and Zimbabwe. The ZQ is not your classic river boat and not really a house boat but somewhere in between. I am struck by the similarities to 'The African Queen' the 1951 movie directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn which takes place in German East Africa at the start of WW1. Hepburn is a slightly prickly British Missionary and Bogart plays the rough a tumble hard drinking Canadian skipper of the African Queen. Our journey on the Chobe is only a little less thrilling then that of Bogey and Kate'. but only a little. The cast of characters, passengers, guides and crew that Chris, Bradley and I would meet on the Zambezi Queen could easily make a movie of interest. We will remember them all fondly. We cannot think of a better way to see this area of the world than with the Zambezi Queen.
AMAWaterways - Golden Trails Of Africa
This is a trip of a lifetime and we highly recommend. Staff and management of the Zambezi Queen are excellent. Off the boat all the accommodations along the safari locations are of the highest quality, all are downright spectacular. Accomodations at Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater are incredibly luxurious. Food is great. Interactions with the Maasai in Kenya and local fishermen Namibia are memorable. Botswana's Chobe National Park is outstanding and there truly is no better way to see it than by boat. Tiger fishing on the Chobe was thrill. This is not your typical river cruise as the Zambezi Queen doesn't travel very far but is used as home base for river travel. Great location, fantastic photography opportunities all day long. One note of caution - the front end of the this trip prior to the Zambezi Queen is a safari and the overland travel is a bit of a grind, but each night there are great hotels to sooth -well worth it.