Basically, this was a road trip: a figure of eight (since there aren't that many border crossings from South Africa to Botswana) for about the same distance as London to Naples and back. There were six of us (started as two English, three Australian and a California girl from central casting; we swapped two Australians for two Norwegians at Victoria Falls) and two guides, we travelled in a purpose-built safari vehicle which was roughly a six-ton truck chassis, with a custom-built box on the back containing fifteen seats, some nice big windows and a quantity of carefully-designed storage space for rucksacks, bedrolls, tents, camping-gas cylinders, cool-boxes, cutlery, cauldrons, firewood, tables, awnings and the like. We slept in tents; each morning we'd strike camp at about sunrise, each afternoon we'd pitch up a bit before sunset, and our guides Emma and Alfie would cook something - generally large pieces of meat, cooked over coals. This was very much the Boer part of South Africa, a lot of people spoke predominantly Afrikaans, and there was a constant sense that, were one to pitch one's tent too ineptly, the spirits of the Voortrekkers would come and haunt one in the night.
First night at Amadwala, which is a permanent camp (tents with beds in!) in the west of Johannesburg; up at 4:30, on the road by six, cross into Botswana, and next night at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, an actually-stocked game park. Next night near Maun at the edge of the Okavango Delta - took a flight in a small plane over the delta at sunset: elephants, giraffe, hippo.
The next morning we put tents, bedrolls and daypacks into mokoros and were punted into the middle of the delta. It's a nice clean swamp - from water level, basically reed-beds and water-lilies as far as the eye could see. The water has flowed from Angola, and is flowing into the Kalahari desert and getting soaked up in the sands about a hundred miles south-east of where we were. Warm water, not too deep; our island was carefully chosen for its crocodilelessness and scarcity of hippos, so we could swim, we could drink the water and it tasted sweet and peaty. Game walk (herd of gnu, family of giraffe), supper cooked over a fire on the island, sleep in a tent on the island. Game walk the next morning (total game spotted: one large spider), punt back to the truck, truck back to paved roads, sleep at Planet Baobab at the edge of the Mgkadigkadi Pans.
The main roads aren't bad in this part of the world; South Africa makes lots of very heavy-duty mining equipment, bits of Zambia rather north of where we were have some very large copper mines, and accordingly the roads from one place to the other have to be fit for sixty-ton trucks. They're geometrically straight - 1.6 million people in Botswana, mostly in the big towns which are around the edges, and the landscape's pretty level, so there's no need to wiggle.
A bit of a drive the next day, to Kasane on the Botswana/Zambia border. We stopped stopping in excitement to photograph elephant on the side of the road after we'd seen six in an hour. The campground was right on the Chobe river, to the point that when we arrived they were frantically moving the bar to the other side of the site away from the rising waters. Boat trip on the Chobe, which was glorious; fifty or sixty elephant going down to the river for a sunset wash.
Next day to the Kazangula crossing, a narrow piece poking out of Botswana between Namibia and Zimbabwe and touching Zambia. Here, Emma said with a sigh, the real Africa begins; there are three pontoons which look as if they haven't been painted since 1970, crossing and recrossing the flooded and fast-flowing Zambezi river, taking about an hour from one bank to the other and carrying four tour-group vans or one sixty-ton truck. The queue of big lorries back from the ferry has been known to take a week, and the negotiations to build some kind of bridge (it would, admittedly, have to be quite a big bridge; the sort of thing that you'd probably need more than one county council to agree on in Britain, a Land rather than a Stadt issue were it over the Rhine) have been stalled since the mid-nineties.
We got across, and headed to a rather pleasant campsite outside Livingstone; the road runs along the river, and as we got to the campsite we could see the spray from the falls. Pitched tents, half an hour at the Falls, another boat trip, this one with much less wildlife but limitless free booze, and to sleep.
Next day we were at liberty in Livingstone. Helicopter flight over the falls in the morning, which was absolutely spectacular and will have its own article with copious illustrations. Lunchtime in Livingstone itself; this wasn't so much fun, we got a lift in as a group and were deposited at the Livingstone Tourist-Fleecing Facility. Sixty booths, each selling the same selection of badly-made carved wooden rhinos, mass-produced paintings of animals, and attractive printed cloth marked 'MADE IN TANZANIA'. Sixty booth-keepers, who'd stand between you and the exit and take pains not to understand that you don't actually want anything. I left with notes amounting to 10,055,000,050,000 Zimbabwean dollars, a bag of small change in the last Zambian currency but one, and a headache; lunch at the Hungry Lion, Zambia's answer to McDonalds; back to the campsite and back to the falls, for an afternoon walking on my own in the forest around them; there will be more photos. A little late for supper since the path through the trees was narrow and I had to wait some time for a pair of large baboons in the middle of it to finish an extensive grooming session; just before supper I walked back with Alfie to put my camera in the truck, and we were charged at by a group of small monkeys. Fortunately, they were only small, and Alfie was an accurate shot with a medium-sized rock.
The next morning we went back over the border, back along 150 miles of perfectly straight elephant-haunted road, and to the campsite at Elephant Sands. This is a definition of the middle of nowhere; took another flight, this time in an open-cockpit ultralight, to see plain covered in scrubby trees from horizon to horizon. Since the plane is well above the trees, the animals can't hide behind them; so I saw elephant, giraffe, lots of buffalo, a couple of ostrich. Emma was going to go up in the ultralight after I got back, but half-way through the takeoff run the bottom fell out of the oil tank, which was a little messy. The campsite is by a water-hole which the elephants come to use in the evening; elephants with itchy skin suck up water from the campsite swimming pool and spray it over themselves as medication.
Four hundred and fifty miles on the road the next day, back into South Africa and to Polokwane; pitch, eat, sleep. Start Wednesday with a game drive near Polokwane - this is where we saw the big impala herd in the previous posting - and then an attractive drive for another 150 miles through the Drakensberg mountains to get to Kruger National Park.
We spent two days driving around the park spotting animals. Pretty much all day each day, though after three hours and with the sun getting hot our attentions were flagging, and there were certainly moments when I would have been keener to have a cold beer than to watch three leopards dancing a hornpipe. A night drive, too; that was an entirely different set of fauna: jackals, rhino, a couple of snakes. This is again quite a conservative part of the country, the person at the campsite next to ours was absolutely affronted that we had the nerve to talk after 9pm.
Friday morning we had another game drive; this was probably the most impressive, we stopped by a waterhole (containing a hippopotamus, and a pair of reptilian eyes which were presumably a crocodile) as an entire herd of buffalo came by for a wash. It is surprisingly difficult to take a picture of a herd of buffalo which tells a story beyond 'y'know, there are an awful lot of cows here'. The hippo and the croc stayed in the middle of their waterhole and mostly tried not to interact with the four hundred huge long-horned cows; there was a moment of exasperation and they went their separate ways.
Friday night we stayed at a tourist trap which they hadn't quite finished building, designed in the shape of a traditional Shangaan village; beds (luxury!), but under mosquito nets which proved good at keeping the mosquitos in, in a straw-roofed hut which was unventilated and incredibly hot. Apparently, the Shangaan tradition is to place a large tree in the centre of one's village, to place huts for men on the right and for women on the left so that marauding Shangaan knew who they should fight, and to host guests in the first hut on the right so that marauders would kill them first. The huts have very low entrances, so that visitors come in with their neck ideally positioned for a quick blow with a knobkerry by the defenders. In the evening, we danced. Traditional Shangaan dancing accoutrements are made out of very thick sheepskin.
And Saturday we drove. Back into the Drakensburg to see the Blyde River Canyon, which was filled with mist; lunch in a tearoom in Dullstroom that could have been transported to Devon without the slightest incongruity, then another three hundred miles to Johannesburg airport. The airport is being reconstructed for the World Cup, so we were dropped off unceremoniously at the taxi stop. Eight hours sitting around the airport; eight hours flight to Dubai; four hours wandering around Dubai (post to follow); eight hours flight to Heathrow; five hours to get from Heathrow arrivals to my house via the tube, the stopping-train to Stevenage, a bus to Letchworth and the last stopping-train of Sunday night into Cambridge. Going into work the next morning was possibly over-optimistic.
It was an experience I'm really glad I've had. I don't think I'll do it again for a while, though there's something in those terraced hills of Ethiopia that might be calling to me ...