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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Family Comes to Botswana

Click here to view a small album of select pictures from the trip!

A group of family members from the US came to visit us over the last
two weeks. The trip included some time in the Okavango Delta and its
surrounding pans (dried up lakes) as well as a few days in our home
village in the heart of the Kalahari Desert.

We started the trip with a day of rest and recuperation in Gaborone
where we stayed at the Metcourt Inn. It was a good transition stay for
our family to adjust to the time difference as well as the cultural
differences they were about to encounter. The Metcourt Inn provides a
very nice accommodation by Botswana standards, but that left something
to be desired when some showers didn't offer hot water and/or had
major leaking problems. But overall, the stay at the Metcourt Inn was
as good as it always is when we stay there and our family had a good
time too.

Instead of taking the 12+ hour bus ride to Maun from Gaborone, we flew
on Air Botswana. Hayley and I cannot even begin to express how nice it
was to take a 1 hour flight and avoid the horror of public
transportation in Botswana that we are usually subjected to!
After picking up some rental cars in Maun, we drove to Planet Baobab
which is located just outside the village of Gweta. Planet Baobab, as
the name suggests, is nestled in the midst of a small grove of Baobab
trees. If you have never seen a Baobab tree picture before, you should
Google a picture of one because they are a very unique and impressive
tree found in only a few places in the world. Our lodge reservation
was for two rondeval houses (large round huts with thatched roves).
The huts gave us plenty of space and ever provided each bed with a
mosquito net. A further bit of bonding came to our travelling group
when we found that within each hut was a toilet and shower area, but
that there areas were only contained by a ¾ wall meaning they were
open air. So, although the ¾ wall provided privacy, it was essentially
like using a bathroom/shower without a door for privacy  ! Aside from
the bathrooms, we all had a great time at Planet Baobab and enjoyed
the character of the place. Its bar and restaurant were good too!
Also, there were ENORMOUS golden orb weaver spiders all over the trees
and bushes of the lodge. They never caused any problem, but they did
make us nervous whenever anyone brushed up against a web!
We booked a 1 day safari through Planet Baobab and were taken out into
the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans to see the scenery and wildlife. The
drive provided more scenery than animals, but a watering hole in the
game reserve did have a fun variety of animals all together in the
same area. We saw a large bull elephant, zebras, springboks,
wildebeests, and ostriches with babies all hanging around. The
elephant would chase off any animals that go to close to his part of
the watering hole but other than that they all seemed to get along
fine. On the drive we also saw other types of antelope, giraffe, and a
secretary bird. At the end of the game drive we were taken to a famous
area called Baines' Baobabs which is a grove of 2000+ year old trees
in the middle of a huge dried up lake.

During our breakfast and lunch on the game drive our guide told us
about his life in Gweta, and after the drive we were taken into the
village where he showed us his house. He is very proud of his yard,
and for good reason! In Botswana it is typical for people to clear
their yard of every living thing so that it remains a dusty barren
plot of land surrounding their house (this is probably a practice used
in order to discourage snakes from getting too close to their houses
because snakes prefer to stay in the cover of bushes and trees). Our
guide's yard was quite the opposite. He had a beautifully manicured
yard that would rival any fancy yard in the US, and instead of hiring
gardeners and landscapers to do all the work, he did all of the work
himself during the weeks when we is not out guiding (he takes tourists
on game drives about 2 times a month).

Our stay in Gweta was short, and so we were on our way back to Maun
after a few days. The drives to between Maun and Gweta provided our
family with some experience driving stick-shift cars on the 'wrong'
side of the road. And to make it even more challenging, they had to be
on the constant lookout for livestock on the roads ever couple of
kilometers. As is the practice in all of Botswana, cows, goats, sheep,
and donkies are left to roam the country without fences and corrals to
keep them contained. Even after our 1.5yr stay in Botswana we cannot
figure out why people would allow their cattle to roam wild nor have
we found anyone that can clearly explain how in the world they ever
find their cattle when they need them since the cows and donkies never
seem to return to their homes (sheep and goats do return to their
corrals at night).

Back in Maun we stayed out our favorite camping hostel, The Old Bridge
Backpackers Lodge. Hayley and I and our friend Mollie slept in two
Tents with small foam mattress in them while the rest of our party was
split between two luxury tents with their own bathroom facilities
inside a private fence made of reeds. The luxury tents were big enough
to stand up in and contained a bedside table/lamp and beds lifted up
off the ground. These tents also had a great view of the waterway
because they were setup right on the bank of the Okavango! The
backpackers lodge also has a really excellent bar/restaurant area
nestled under a large Marula tree, and at night you can see the fruit
bats flying around in the tree which makes for a nice atmosphere. Not
to mention, the food there is some of the best that we have ever had
in Botswana (they make pizzas and burgers along with other things that
are always a nice break from the usual food selections in Botswana).

While staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers we went on a 2-day 1-night
camping safari in the Moremi game reserve which is part of the
Okavango Delta. The drive was booked through the Backpackers lodge. On
the drive we saw just about every iconic animal you can see in
Botswana except for leopards and cheetahs (FYI, rhinos are native to
Botswana but in the interest of protecting them from poaching the last
8-10 rhinos in the country have been rounded up and relocated to the
rhino sanctuary in Serowe, Botswana where each rhino is given 3-4
armed guards that stay with the animals at all times as they roam the
countryside of the preserve).

We observed huge herds of Cape Water Buffalo (the most danger land
animal in the world) and groups of hippos (the most dangerous water
animals in the world) along with zebras, giraffe, tons of various
antelope species, and elephants. The highlight of our two day drive,
however, was getting to sit in our truck no more than 10 feet away
from two young male lions. It is common lion practice for males to
group up and live together until they are old enough to challenge a
dominate male for the breeding rights to a pride of lionesses. These
two males were lying next to an acacia bush napping until the sun went
down and they could start their night of hunting. It should be noted
that we stopped to view these lions in a place only a few kilometers
from our camp site! Like most of the animals in the game reserves of
Botswana, they had grown up with the presence of trucks driving
through the reserve, so they are absolutely no interest in us or our
truck. Our guide explained that the animals here see the trucks as an
unthreatening creature and so they ignore it and because they see the
people inside the truck as part of the truck itself, there is no
danger to the tourists on game drives. However, the instant that you
step off of the truck onto the ground the animals see you as a human
being and their treatment of you changes accordingly. That means,
would most likely just run away but lions, elephants, buffalo, and
even zebras can be curious, aggressive, and/or territorial and they
can clearly see that you can a lot smaller than them and thus you are
in danger if you every try to get out of the truck near these animals!

The guiding company had our camp set up for us and cooked us dinner
when we finished our first day of the game drive. The tents were small
2-person tents, and our guests made it explicitly clear that the night
sleeping in tents in the Moremi game reserve was the farthest outside
of their comfort zone they could possibly have gone during their trip
to Botswana  ! But, after a night of listening to hippos passing by
the camp site as their started their nightly trek ~20km into the
forest to forage for other types of vegetation, we all woke up in time
to see the sunrise and have a quick breakfast before going out to see
more animals!
After the Moremi game drive, four of us went out on a 1-day mokoro
excursion. Mokoros are a tradition canoe used by the native people of
the Okavango Delta for thousands of years. A single mokoro is carved
the trunk of the marula tree. It takes a skilled carver about 5 weeks
to complete a mokoro while the job takes most experienced people about
2 months. The mokoros float very low in the water and are pushed along
by a guide that uses a long pole to navigate the waterways. We were
able to see a herd of elephants crossing the waterway about 100m ahead
of us, but other than that the trip offered a relaxing trip of pretty
scenery and peaceful water sounds.

After our adventures in Maun and Gweta were finished we flew back the
Gaborone and rented two more cars which we used to drive to our home
village in the Southern Kalahari region of Botswana. While at our
village our family had two days to see the school and hospital were we
work, and we spend the days after school had finished letting our
family interact with the students and play games with them. We also
took full advantage of the cars by going to the super market and
bulk-supply store in or village where we purchased enough canned goods
and toilet paper to last us the rest of our time at our site!
That concludes the highlights of our trip and if any of you reading
this know our family members that visited us you should check out
their facebook profiles to see pictures of our adventures! We will
post our own pictures as soon as we have an internet connection fast
enough to do so!

- Michael