What is the perfect destination for a cold, wet and humid winter weekend? Rotorua comes to mind, with some well-deserved soaking in the hot pools. But slow cooking in hot water aside, there is always time for some other activities. On Saturday, we walk in the Rotorua’s redwood forest. It is difficult to imagine that the trees were only planted at the beginning of the 20th century. Looking at their impressive size, it gives the impression that they’ve been there for centuries!
On Sunday, we drive a few km south to the thermal park of Wai-O-Tapu. Nice colours and thermal activity, although the some sun would probably have added a bit more contrast to the bright palette of colours. There is a nice walk in the park that takes us past different pools of fuming water, bubbling mud, or small lakes with water of a colour that hints at the fact that it is probably not so safe to drink.
A few days out of Auckland… We start with a flight to Wellington, and are welcomed by a freezing weather. Typical Christmas temperature… Except that it is summer here! Well, we’ll stick to indoor activities. This includes a visit to Te Papa museum, and then to Weta studios. The next day, 24 December, we catch the 6.30 ferry to Picton.
The weather is not much better than yesterday, but a ray of sun hits a cruise ship moored in Wellington Harbour. The weather improves on the way to Picton, and ends up being nice and sunny once we arrive.
As the weather is nice, we walk along Snout track, which provides excellent view on Queen Charlotte Sound.
We then drive to Blenheim, where we spend the night. Christmas day ends up being quite a challenge, as everything is closed. Our AirBnB host recommends a trail in the Wairau Lagoons and a visit to the nearby beach. The weather is a bit cloudy and windy, and it is therefore not possible to swim at the beach, but the view is nonetheless beautiful and well worth the trip.
On 26 December, we wake up early and drive back to Picton to catch a boat that drops us at camp bay for a bit of hiking along Queen Charlotte Track.
The track climbs to Eatwell lookout, where we are rewarded by a breathtaking view on Queen Charlotte sound.
We wait for the boat at Punga resort, and have time to drink a nice and cold ale, and for a quick dip. The water is not very warm, but the scenery is priceless. Once the boat brings us back to Picton, we drive to our next stop: Nelson. This turns out to be longer than expected, for even though the two towns are quite close on a map, the road goes around the mountains. The next day is already the last of this short trip. We have breakfast at Kaiteriteri, and then a quick dip at the beach, followed by a short visit to split apple rock and the nice beach nearby.
We finish this trip by some wine tasting at Rimu Grove’s cellar door, followed by lunch at Mapua wharf, and it’s already time to drive back to the airport.
After breakfast, we take the train to the centre of Johannesburg. We don’t have a precise plan and want to just walk around, but the surroundings of the station are quite sketchy, so we decide to use the hop on hop off bus to get a tour of the city. Even though Johannesburg exists because of — and owes its fortune to — the gold rush, there is nothing glittering about it, and it looks rather raw from an architectural perspective.
We take time to visit constitution hill, that was used both as a fort and a prison. That is where Nelson Mandela and Gandhi were incarcerated. There is interesting information about life during the apartheid, and we can see pictures of the young Mandela, that contrast the respectable-looking older gentleman image that comes to mind when thinking about him.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we go back to the airport, and this marks the beginning of our long flight back to New Zealand.
We wake up early to go back to the falls at sunrise. From the hotel garden we can see the plume of mist against the background of the pink sky.
After a short walk, we are back at the falls, and we select the viewpoint which we think will lead the best view. We are not disappointed, and seeing the falls at sunrise was well worth paying the hefty entrance price to the park. Back at the Hotel we eat our breakfast, and it is already time to go to the airport for a flight to Johannesburg.
We arrive in Johannesburg at the end of the afternoon, and take the train to our hotel. We walk around and get lost in a huge mall, designed so that you don’t find the exit.
From our balcony, we can see the plume of mist from Victoria Falls, and that’s precisely where we are headed, but not before having taken a copious breakfast. On our way to the falls, we have to fend off a few vendors who want to sell us old Zimbabwean dollars, with surreal amounts in the billion or trillion dollar range. The switch the the US dollar must have made life much easier.
Victoria Falls is much more touristy than the areas we visited previously, and the prices reflect this fact. While the entrance price to a national park in Namibia costs about USD 5.5 for a whole day, the entrance to Victoria Falls costs USD 30, for a single entry. Not far from the entry, there is an imposing statue. Doctor Livingstone, I presume. (Sorry, lame joke…). The falls are impressive with so much water going over the edge that at some location it is difficult to see the fall. The reflection of the sun on the mist makes taking pictures difficult.
After the visit, we walk over the bridge that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia. We don’t go through the Zambian custom checkpoint, as it would then take some time to reach the falls from that side, and we are going for a cruise in the afternoon. On our way back on the bridge, we watch a girl bungee jumping. From the bottom of the gorge, we hear her shout: I’ve lost my cell phone!
We go back to the brewery for lunch, and spend some time at the pool in the afternoon, from where we witness a baboon stealing food from the table of a couple eating at the restaurant. We then leave the hotel for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river. We are on a nice small wooden boat with 10 other people. The boat is named Ra-Ikane, from Lazarus Ra-Ikane, a young african boy who became one Livingstone’s guides. Or at least that’s what the crew of the boat tells us, passing a book amongst us that describes the fact, as well as Livingstone’s exploration of Africa. However, the book is edited by the tour operator, and searching about Ra-ikane on Google only points to the operator of the cruise. No mention of Ra-Ikane on Livingstone’s wikipedia page… So has the boat company created a legend around the character? Has he been forgotten by History? Who knows, but anyway the cruise is very enjoyable with good nibbles and a very ginny gin and tonic.
After breakfast, a bus picks us up to drive us to the border with Zimbabwe. Leaving Botswana is painless, we just need to fill up a form. Getting into Zimbabwe is a bit less organised due to the need to get a visa on arrival, a process which is not efficiently managed. Once this formality is done, another bus takes us to Victoria falls, and drops us at our hotel at the beginning of the afternoon.
We walk around town and stop for lunch at a local craft brewery. The food menu is reduced, due to a power cut.
After lunch we do some shopping and hunt for some souvenirs to take home, but the task is made more difficult by the lack of power which keeps the shops in darkness. In the evening, we wanted to find a restaurant in town, but there is still no power, and therefore no public lighting. We decide to stay at the hotel, which has a very nice restaurant with tables on the lawn, as well as a powerful (albeit noisy) diesel generator.
We wake up very early to join the morning game drive. After our experience in Etosha, we knew it would be freezing cold, so we put on warm clothes. It’s still very cold, despite the blanket we are given, particularly for the hand holding the camera.
An early morning game drive is an opportunity to see predators, but footprints aside, they remain well hidden. Despite this, we see numerous animals, and spectacular views of the river from the hills of the park.
We come back to the lodge for breakfast, enjoy some quiet reading time on a wooden deck above the Chobe river, and after lunch, we are ready for the last game drive of our trip. A group of about 20 elephants crosses the road just in front of our jeep, which is quite a sight. After much game viewing, we enjoy a stop under a tree with some beer and biltong, and then drive back to the lodge while admiring the sunset over the river.
After breakfast, we drive to Katima Mulilo, at the border between Namibia and Zambia. We say goodbye to our car that has led us through Namibia for 2 weeks, and a driver drives us to Kasane in Botswana. Going through the border is a painless process. The lodge at Kasane is a bit too large with too many people around, and the all-inclusive activities are organised in a somewhat clinical style. Surprisingly, despite the huge group of people massed in the foyer, there are only a handful of people on the boat for the afternoon boat cruise on the Chobe river.
This river tour was the best in terms of game viewing, as we saw countless elephants, hippos, and buffaloes. That is the first time we can see buffaloes from so close. We also see two large crocodiles from very close, as well as countless birds.
Dinner is set up outside by the pool. When we arrive, all the tables are taken, so the waitress asks us whether we would be OK to share a table. When we say sure, she asks: “but she is black, is it OK?”. During dinner we try to get our table mate to talk, but although she is very friendly she only tells us the minimum about her presence in the hotel. She is from Botswana, is here on business, works for the government in “statistics”. As the lodge also has conference rooms, where a UN event is taking place, we suspect she is a spy, but her cover withstands our queries about software used for statistics. As there is an obnoxious American staying at the hotel, who is part of the UN delegation, we secretly hope her mission consists in sending him to sleep with the fish.
We will go for a game drive with the lodge in the afternoon, so we take advantage of the morning to relax and enjoy the view. We admire a book that was commissioned by the lodge to an artist who drew aquarelles of scenes from the nature and wildlife around. There is a note on the book that says it can be bought from the lodge shop, but it’s unfortunately sold out.
When it’s time to leave for the game drive, we discover that it’s only the two of us going (yay!), and that our guide will be Hidden again. There’s nothing wrong with him, but guides we had before were playing in another category. Once in the Mudumu park, we start driving inland and get some beautiful shots of elephants, some having just had a mud bath. We also hope to see a lion, as Hidden has spotted footsteps on the dirt road. Unfortunately, we were not able to find him or her.
We then drive to the river where a small elevated platform provides us with a perfect view of the river in which elephants are eating lotus, or coming to the water for a drink. Hippos, crocodiles and birds are also around. After dinner, we sit around the campfire and discuss with two young Namibians working for a nearby lodge. They have diverging opinions on the state of the country, but an interesting fact they teach us is that the passing grade in the Namibian school system is set at 30% to increase the number of passing students.
Today, we take our car again and continue east along the Caprivi strip until Kongola. It is only a short drive then until camp Kwando, located on the bank of the eponymous river.
Our tented room is a treehouse, not really in a tree, but there is one growing through the deck. Later in the afternoon, we join the boat tour on the river. We are again lucky, as it’s only the two of us. The river, which marks the border with Botswana, is narrow and counts many meanders and branches, which makes for a beautiful landscape. We see a few hippos in the rivers at different locations, and each time we can see that our guide, Hidden, gets a bit tense, as he speeds up to go over them. No way to go around, as the river is narrow, and given the size of the boat and the reputation of hippos, I can understand his concern. Besides hippos, we see lots of birds, a small crocodiles, and elephants drinking in the water.
Hidden is quite good at spotting wildlife, but he tends to use his boat to scare animals to make them move, which we find a bit odd, as our idea of wildlife watching is to be as unobtrusive and discreet as possible. Back at our treehouse, I discover that a cute little white frog is living on the light above the front door. I am reminded by a very pale Josh that he is afraid of frogs.