Four nights in Bangkok

Bangkok, city of smells, hot hot heat, amazing street food, pretty lady boys, noodle soup breakfasts, speeding Skytrain, seedy red light districts, swank hotels, and did I mention humid hot heat?

We had saved up some errands for Bangkok as anything and everything you could ever want is available.  For cheap.  For us, that meant haircuts, sidewalk seamstress, and even the dentist.   A nice break from touring and we got to experience the streets of Bangkok like a local.

We did also get out to see the main tourist sights of Bangkok:  a hot and quick tour of the Grand Palace, Wat Po, Khao San Road (had to walk through for the spectacle), the river, and some fab rooftop bars, where we contemplated a city of 8-15 million people, depending on who you ask.

We also had a great time meeting up with Jen’s friend from an internship in Bangkok, who showed us artsy hipster Bangkok, including an awesome crab broil dinner at a fun restaurant!  So fun to catch up with him.

Jen was in heaven to be back in Thailand, her favorite place.  Plumeria flowers, thai food, thai smiles, and incredible scenery.  Speaking of, onto the beaches!

Dubai

The opulence of Dubai was a nice contrast to some of the frustrations of Africa.  We went from power outages, long, cramped bus rides, and cold, non-insulated rooms, to superb service, luxury, and decadence.  Maybe it was because we stayed in our first proper hotel of the trip, and it was a JW Marriot.  In Dubai.  (Thanks Jon’s hotel points!)  It also happens to be the tallest hotel in the world, which made our ears pop every time we rode the elevators to our room on the 57th floor.  We did have to endure 115 degree temperatures, which made every jump from air-conditioned hotel to cab painful.

Hoping for a small free breakfast, we followed the many hallways and doors to the breakfast buffet, hidden from view from the fasting Muslims. To our surprise, it was an elaborate spread and we feasted like kings on several counters of Indian, Middle Eastern, European and American style breakfasts.

Finding that everything was closed, because it was both Friday (their holy day) and Ramadan, we did what all Dubaians do:  we went to the mall.  It was more of a spectacle than a mall:  we marveled at the giant aquarium, the ice rink, the amusement park.  We even grabbed a few items that we’ve been needing.

We retired to the workout room and the beautiful pool with views of the giant skyscrapers nearby.  We had planned to do an Iftar, a breaking of the fast dinner feast, at our hotel.  However, we wandered down a bit late and found they were only open for a few more minutes.  We found out that there was a smaller feast in the complimentary executive lounge, and decided that was plenty for us.

The next day, we took in a tour at a Mosque and learned about Dubai’s history at the Dubai Musem, before taking off for Bangkok.

Dubai was like Las Vegas, without the trashy side.  We were entranced and had a good time, but ready to go after two days… on to Bangkok and Southeast Asia!

The End of Africa

We took an overnight bus from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, and I have to say that we were ready to be in South Africa again.  Despite the bad reviews we had heard of Johannesburg, we had a great time in the big city.  We went out to nice meals and fun bars and clubs in a trendy area near our hostel.  Jo’burg was surprisingly hip but still laid-back.  It was encouraging to see diverse groups of people, at least in the ritzy nightlife scene.  We met friends from the US and Botswana in our hostel and joined them for the night on the town.

The next day, we visited the Apartheid Museum, which was incredibly powerful and beautifully presented, and the World of Beer, which was commercialized and worth skipping.  As we were walking out of the World of Beer, we received a phone call from our friends from the hostel.  “Um, can you pick us up?  Our car was stolen!”  “Of course!”  “We’re in a shopping mall.”  “Be right there.”

We drove as the sun set…and we drove and drove.  We saw a sign for “Soweto,” the historical township, and current high crime area.  We started getting nervous.  Not a good idea to drive here at night. Random objects in the road, then people walking in the road.  “Don’t stop at stoplights,” we had been told, which was easy because the street lights were mostly out, adding to the darkness and our increasing anxiety.   We called our friends: “Our GPS must be wrong!  It drove us straight into Soweto!”  “No, that’s right – we’re in a shopping mall…in the heart of Soweto.”  Well, that would have been good to know – we thought we were driving to one of Jo’burgs chic malls.  Despite our better judgment, we picked up the stranded group in Soweto.   “Now, can you drive us to the police station?”  “Allllright.”  We didn’t get out of the car for the entire two hour rescue mission, even at the sketchy-looking police station.  It turned out that they had stopped at a chain food shop in a strip mall, and their car had been stolen in less than 6 minutes in broad daylight in a crowded parking lot.  All in all it was quite a long rescue mission, and they never did find their car.  We were glad it wasn’t us and happy to have helped.

After a few days in the big city, we headed to the Drakensburg Mountains.  We spent a day staying with the hospitable and kind family of Jon’s friends from college, Cameron, on a beautiful cattle farm.  We then spent a night in their rustic cabin near the entrance to the national park into a section of the Drakensberg Mountains.  We hiked to some cave paintings, and tried to stay warm with a fire.  Jen came down with a stomach bug, so Jon went on a hike in the morning, and then we headed for the coast and warmer temperatures.

Durban had perfect temperatures and a nice beach, a perfect antidote to freezing nights in the highlands.

Overall, we loved our time in Africa…  the people, the diverse natural beauty of desert, coast, mountains, and valleys, and of course, the animals.   We both agree we will make a return trip to Africa, it is a special place.

But for now… next-up, brief stop in the Middle East and then on to Asia!  Can’t wait!

Zimbabwe

For us, Zimbabwe was an afterthought, really.  We hadn’t planned to tour through, but we had to travel south somehow to complete our grand loop of Southern Africa from Cape Town to Jo’Burg.  Because public transport through Botswana is basically nonexistent aside from the treacherous mini buses, we headed through Zimbabwe.  We were bussing through anyway, so we figured we should explore.  After all, we aren’t likely to be back.

Not surprisingly, travel here is much more difficult than in South Africa, or Namibia, or Botswana.   Those countries seemed like a well-running dream compared to Zimbabwe, rocked by years of war, recent famine, and decaying infrastructure.  It is clear that every building, hotel, etc was built in the 1950s or 60s and remains as it was without much upkeep, like a society locked in time, but trudging on.  Everything is relatively very expensive here as well; I have no idea how the people here can afford anything.  Somehow though, the Zimbabwean people are the warmest and gentlest that we’ve come across in Southern Africa.  How they maintain their sunny demeanor in the face of hardship is truly amazing.

It was our first country we’ve visited where criticism of the government is illegal.  ‘Stay away from political subjects altogether,’ says our guidebook.  Quietly, we wondered how Robert Mugabe feels about Zimbabwe’s use of the US dollar in its (almost) all cash economy.

Victoria Falls area is more accommodating to tourists, being a tourist destination since the early 1900s, aside from the periods when travel here wasn’t really possible.  Travel outside of Vic Falls was more trying, but we did manage to see some impressive sites.

Great Zimbabwe is a World Heritage Site and a fascinating site of ruins, built around the 13th century.  The hill complex is a maze of old steps and tiny passageways, set between giant boulders.  There is also the “Great Enclosure,” thought to be the royal compound, with huge walls and a conical tower.  The ruins are not well known, but suggest an advanced society not attributed to this area by earlier scholars.  Unfortunately, years of looting, suggestions that the society couldn’t have been African, and lack of government funding have resulted in limited information about the life of the 10-20,000 people who lived here between the 11th and 15th centuries.  The country was named after this area after imperial Rhodesia was no more.

The travel to and from Great Zimbabwe required two 5-hour bus trips on “chicken buses,” or local buses.   After we jumped on the first bus with our backpacks, we were told the packed bus was too full, but as we turned around to exit, the bus pulled away suddenly to our surprise.  Somehow, the locals on the bus made room for us and weren’t too annoyed with our giant packs.  We did get to meet some nice locals on the bus, but the bumps, lack of room, and smells on the bus made for a long 5 hours.

View pulling up to the "bus station" in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  We took the bus on the right :)
View pulling up to the “bus station” in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We ended up on the bus on the far right!

We also camped in Matobo National Park, the “spiritual heart” of Zimbabwe, where we enjoyed views of balancing boulders and 60,000 year old cave paintings.  We made friends with our drivers, who opened up to us about their life in Zimbabwe and the struggles they face.

IfOur guest house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe - we loved it there!

Our guest house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – we loved it there!

Victoria Falls

From Chobe, our next stop was Victoria Falls, which is on the boarder of Zambia and Zimbabwe – we decided to stay on the Zim side for a host of logistical reasons.   We stayed at a fun, laid-back “backpackers” with a really nice atmosphere – it had a reggae, artist vibe to it.  As we found out later, it is the only bar in town, so many locals and tourists flooded the place, which made for a great place to watch the World Cup!

As for the falls themselves – well, they’re one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the largest waterfall in the world – so of course it was incredible!   We did visit on both the Zam and Zim sides – amazing how much water came up from the power of the falls – when you get up close along the cliffs across from the falls, it’s as if you are in the middle of a monsoon!  We both got happily soaked.

We had our first few travel snafus – bus miss-communications, broken (soaked) local cell phone, visa rip-offs.  But we figured this was to be expected in Zim, and realized we’ve had virtually no travel problems for our entire trip in Africa so far…pretty amazing.

Before leaving town, we took a walk to the largest Baobab tree in Zim, and one of the largest in the World!  They estimate this tree to be between 1000-1500 years old!

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Chobe National Park

We wanted to head to Chobe National Park in Botswana, and as there is no budget tourist transport between Katima and Chobe, we opted for local transport, meaning we took a local “mini bus” to the border, walked across the border, and then hitchhiked into town.  After I told some friends about this and realized how mad this sounds to our friends back home, I decided that this deserves some explanation.

Other than paying $100 US per person to go about 80 miles, there is no good way to get from Katima to Chobe, despite their proximity.  We jumped into local transport, a mini bus or “combi” as they call it, which is a large van which fits about eight people, but usually holds at least ten.   They shoved us into the back and proceeded to drive around town for at least 45 minutes, doing seemingly nothing as the van was full.  The driver kindly drove everyone to their home at their village (door to door service! What a bargain!), which meant that what should have been a 45 minute drive took over 2 hours.  We made a few friends in the bus, which was nice.

We then walked about two kilometers over the bridge, past towering baobabs and a pretty marsh, into Botswana.

Then, the hitchhiking, or “hiking” as it’s called here.  To allay your fears, let me explain how utterly safe and nice of an experience this was:  when we mentioned to the immigration officer that we were hiking into town, she asked the next people after us if they could drive us into town.  Although they couldn’t fit two, they offered to take one of us and the next car could take the other.  Later, a random Namibian gentleman ushered us into this car, offering to take us to the road, where we would be more able to find another ride into town.  He noticed a few officials in trucks were leaving, so he took it upon himself to ask the men in trucks if they had room for us.  An official with the national parks of Bostwana let us jump in the back of his pickup, and we were dropped off in town, right outside of the lodge where we’d be camping.  In the back of the truck, we met a nice Namibian couple and a Zimbabwean girl whose sister lives in Atlanta, and upon visiting her met a man she was to marry in December, and told us about her upcoming Zim and US weddings.  The people we met could not have been more kind and helpful.

Overall, it was a nice experience, although long and a bit tiring.

Walking 2+ km across the Namibia/Batswana border
Walking 2+ km across the Namibia/Botswana border
Baobob tree and river at the Batswana/Namibia border
Baobab tree and river at the Botswana/Namibia border
Happy to hitch in the back of a pickup after crossing the Batswana border!
Happy to hitch in the back of a pickup after crossing the Botswana border!

Then, Chobe National Park in Botswana.   Also one of the premiere places to view wildlife.  Chobe is home to over 120,000 elephants.  It has no fences, and is at the meeting point of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.  In contrast, Etosha National Park in Namibia is a fenced park and is a nearly arid “pan” with watering holes spread about.

In Chobe, we camped at a big resort in town with a beautiful pool overlooking the Chobe River.  In Botswana, there aren’t many budget options for travelers.  The options are often either expensive rooms at mega resorts, or camping, as many South Africans drive big camper vans with large tents on top, called “Overlanders.” We took a game drive in the morning, saw two lion moms with their five cubs, and the last animal we hadn’t seen in the “the big five”: buffaloes!  In the afternoon we took the river boat cruise – simply STUNNING!   Many hippos, elephants, crocs, birds – the highlight of the river cruise was getting to see a herd of elephants swim across the Chobe river – using their trunks as snorkels – so cool!!

Rivers & Old Friends

After a few nights camping in Etosha National Park, we headed back up through the Zambezi Region (recently renamed from the Caprivi Strip) to visit some of Jen’s old haunts from her days working for Elephant Energy in Katima Mulilo in 2009.

We headed up to a town called Rundu, and stayed in a lovely cabin along the Okovango River.  This normally wouldn’t be a tourist stop, but we wanted to visit a regional sales manager for Elephant Energy named Teo.  He was wonderful and even invited us into his home to meet his family, including his daughter who is named after the former Director of Elephant Energy!  It was amazing to see how the organization has grown.

Sunset along the Okavango from our cabin window in Rundu
Sunset along the Okavango from our cabin window in Rundu
The Okavango at sunset in Rundu.
The Okavango at sunset in Rundu.
The Elephant Energy kiosk at the store in Rundu.
The Elephant Energy kiosk at the store in Rundu.
Jon with Teo and family at their home in Rundu
Jon with Teo and family at their home in Rundu

We continued on public transport to another camp along the river.  By public transport, I mean we waited at gas stations for mini-buses, or combis, while men shouted at us “where are you going?!” before ushering us into private cars, full to the brim, where we were stuffed in and taken to our destinations for reasonable prices.

The next camp, Ngepi Camp, is really a legend of the Caprivi.  The camp is remarkable: right on the headwaters of the Okovango River (south, it spreads to the Okovango Delta in Botswana), with treehouses right on the river, funky and funny signs, open-air reed-enclosed showers and toilets, and a “swimming pool”, which is really a big dock surrounding an enclosed metal cage in the Okovango – one of the only ways to swim safely in the hippo and croc infested waters!  At Ngepi, we camped on the banks of the river.  The next day, we We relaxed by the water, took a dip in the “pool,” and then we took a Mokoro boat ride down the headwaters of the Okovango.  Jon demanded hippos, and soon thereafter we saw at least 6 hippos dive from an island into the water in front of us! We were stranded for awhile while they loudly snorted at us from the river, terrifying our German friend, Sophia.  Later, a clan of rowdy South African rugby players descended upon us at the bar, and a good time was had by all.

Our new German friends from the Mokoro ride, Sophia and Lukas, kindly offered to drop us off in Katima Mulilo, as they were passing through there.  Katima was Jen’s home for about 5 months in 2009, while working for Elephant Energy.  It was great to visit old friends in town, and to see the new shop for Elephant Energy in Katima Mulilo.

Jen and her friend Anna at the EE Katima Mulilo market kiosk
Jen and her friend Anna at the EE Katima Mulilo market kiosk
Jen and her friend Joseph from her EE days in Katima Mulilo
Jen and her friend Joseph from her EE days in Katima Mulilo
Our friend Kristophe (who attended our wedding) and his hydroponic farm startup in Katima Mulilo
Our friend Christoph (who attended our wedding) and his hydroponic farm startup in Katima Mulilo

Then, off to our third country…Botswana!