Zanzibar’s white sand beaches and turquoise waters – this place is as cool as it sounds.
Archive for May, 2011
Slideshow #2 of our Best Of albums, this time from our amazing month in Peru. Enjoy the pics!
In addition to having an incredible time on our Botswana safari, I was also blown away by the responsible tourism practices of our local hosts – Wilderness Safaris. For my latest contribution to World Nomads’ Blog, I gave them some love. Check out the original here, or copied below.
The Second Government of Botswana – Wilderness Safaris
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how difficult it is to run a responsible safari camp in the remote Southern African bush, and the individual efforts of a few independent lodges. Now, I want to show you how one large safari company is positively changing the landscape across the entire region through their model of “sustainable conservation through responsible tourism.”
Botswana is home to some of the best safari camps (and wildlife viewing) on the planet. Famed for the Okavango Delta and the elephant-filled Chobe National Park, Botswana is a top destination on any safari-buff’s bucket list. And no company knows more about running successful camps in Botswana than Wilderness Safaris. Started 25 years ago by a couple of rangers and a single Land Cruiser, Wilderness has grown to operate 60+ camps across southern Africa, with over 25 in Botswana alone. The company’s active role in politics, conservation, tourism, and community development has earned them the nickname, the Second Government of Botswana. The company’s commitment to sustainability has earned them the reputation of a world leader in responsible tourism.
“Wildness Safaris is first and foremost a conservation organization. The reason we exist is to protect pristine wilderness areas and the biodiversity they support.” Not too many for-profit companies have conservation as their core mandate. Wilderness’ sustainability focus goes well beyond the environment – their commitment to the people and communities in their areas of operation has brought about unparalleled opportunity, education, skills, and jobs, with the vision of making “a difference in all people’s lives, by enabling them to find new paths, and leaving a legacy of conservation for our children.”
Ok, so we’ve established that the company is committed in their mission and vision. But what are they actually doing on the ground in Botswana? Too much to tell in this single post. I’m going to completely ignore the operational sustainability aspect of their lodge and camp operation (responsible management of waste, energy, water, etc), as I covered some of those initiatives in my previous post. Here, we’ll focus on the conservation and community initiatives of the company’s non-profit arm, the Wildlife Trust.
Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust currently supports 43 projects across 6 Southern African countries. The projects fall into one of three project areas: Research and conservation, community empowerment and education, and anti-poaching and management. A few project examples:
· Botswana Rhino Relocation and Reintroduction Project – Due to poaching, rhinos were all but extinct in Botswana until the Trust, in conjunction with Botswana’s Wildlife and National Parks Department, began an anti-poaching and relocation project to bring rhino numbers back up in the region. In addition to relocating animals, researchers closely monitor the rhinos, their adaptation to the new environments, and their breeding patterns. Similar reintroduction projects are also being carried out by the Trust in Zimbabwe and Malawi.
· Children in the Wilderness – Wilderness Safaris’ flagship community education program brings groups of rural kids from surrounding villages to Wilderness camps (which have been closed to the public) for a 5-night stay, where they participate in a life skills and environmental education program. Topics include wildlife, conservation, health, HIV/AIDS awareness, nutrition, life skills, geology, and arts and crafts. Through leadership development, Children in the Wilderness aims to facilitate sustainable conservation throughout the local communities. Over 3000 children have participated to date.
· Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit – This team of individuals has been fighting poachers in the Vic Falls region for over 10 years. Still a rampant problem in the area, the crew fights back though removal of animal snares (devices used to catch animals), treatment of animals injured by snares, and through direct arrest of poachers (436 were apprehended in 2009 alone) within the region.
And there are some 40 other projects funded, monitored, or executed by the Wildlife Trust. The scope of positive impact is astounding, and these efforts are funded almost entirely by Wilderness Safaris and their guests.
With over 2500 employees, over 2.8 million hectares of wilderness under their watch, over 40 Trust projects operating simultaneously, all while running over 60 safari camps and a bush airline, Wilderness Safaris’ infrastructure may just rival that of a small country. It’s a good thing that this “country’s” people are putting conservation at the heart of their economy.
We visited a total of 6 countries in Southern Africa – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique – but some for only a matter of days, and some for only a matter of hours! That being said, we’ve decided to combine them all together for a regional wrap-up. Below, in no particular order, are our Top 10 Highlights, Bottom 5 Bummers, as well as Favorite Food/Drink and Animal Sightings (new category for Africa!) of our two months in Southern Africa. You can also check out our Best of Southern Africa photo album for some more visual highlights (and don’t forget the African Mega-Fauna album for our top animal sightings).
Victoria Falls– What can we say? They are one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and they are some incredibly impressive falls.
- Remoteness of the Botswana bush – A safari in Botswana is a unique experience. You are hundreds of miles into the wilderness away from cities, towns, and other people. There are no power lines or fences or signs of civilization. The only way in and out is via bush plane. It’s just you and the animals in the bush.
- Small plane flights between safari lodges – Due to the remoteness of the safari camps in Botswana and seasonal weather conditions, several times our transport between camps was by small plane. One flight was a total of 8 minutes and Ted got to sit shotgun with the pilot.
- Mokoro ride – Our safari group in Botswana got treated to traditional Mokoro rides, which are similar to dug-out canoes. Powered only by a long pole, you are gliding just inches above the water and kinda feel like you’re flying.
- Family-filled January – How incredible is it that both sets of our parents came all the way across the ocean from the Northern United States to Southern Africa to visit us?!
- View from Table Mountain – Nothing quite like it and I think we appreciated it even more due to the energy we expended to get up there!
- Morning at Clifton Beaches – Just around the corner from Cape Town’s city center are the most beautiful, tucked-away beaches. We went with the Graces on a weekday and nearly had the place to ourselves.
Animal Sighting Good Luck Charms – The Martens saw it all in the animal department – including the much talked about Big 5 (elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and lions) plus cheetahs and lots of other good stuff in a matter of days. Ted and I had not seen a rhino or a cheetah before their visit and we’d been on nearly 30 game drives before they came.
- Bush to Beach to Bush – I wrote about this day in a previous post, and it was really quite awesome. Seeing big animals and swimming in the ocean makes for an incredible day.
- SCUBA Diving in Moz – We both love being underwater and I wish we got to do it more often. We were very impressed with the coral and the variety of fish in Mozambique.
- Lame NYE – We’d love to have a memorable, exciting story to share about our New Year’s Eve on the trip, but low and behold, we were asleep before midnight.
- Theft – At the lodge we stayed at in Cape Town with my parents, we had an issue with some sticky-fingered housekeepers. Wily Ted was able to prove their misdeed. The manager was appalled and immediately and appropriately addressed the situation, including reimbursing us for the small amount taken.
Bus to Tofo Beach – We’re wimps. We didn’t take a whole lots of public transportation in Africa, and I’m using this fairly uncomfortable bus ride as justification of why we didn’t do so.
- Visa debacles – Let’s just say that in Johannesburg we went to the India Embassy three times (to get a visa), the Mozambique Embassy four times (to get a visa), and the U.S. Embassy once (to get more pages in my passport).
- Failing to visit Namibia – When we left the US for our trip, we were 100% positive we were going to Namibia. Ted has a travel industry friend and contact living there with his family and we were planning to pay them a visit. Sadly, it didn’t happen.
Favorite Meals and Treats
- Sundowners – The idea of having a cocktail while watching the sun go down is a good one. We enjoyed our sundowners on the Zambezi River in Zambia, in the Botswana bush, with city views in Cape Town, throughout the greater Kruger Park area, and the list goes on.
Stuffed Crabs – Mmmm. We discovered these stuffed treats in Mozambique and ate them all week.
- Unique Game – Never before had we eaten ostrich or impala – and we quite liked it. Other game options included crocodile, kudu (a type of antelope), and warthog!
- Ocean Basket – OB is a South African chain restaurant that serves fresh seafood, fish and chips, and sushi. They are everywhere and we ate there many a time including with both sets of parents.
- NatHab Safari Meals – When we were on safari in Botswana, we ate entirely too much amazing food. How they got such fabulous fresh food out into the middle of the bush in order to feed us so well is beyond me.
Animal Sighting Highlights
Wild Dog – Our one and only sighting of wild dogs was in Botswana. They are endangered and extremely rare to see. Even the guides were excited, that is how we knew we were lucky.
- Pursuit of first leopard – Francis, our guide in Botswana, is the man. With his animal tracking know-how, his persistence and determination, his off-road driving and a little bit of luck we spotted our first leopards – a momma and two older cubs. You wouldn’t believe the amount of vegetation we got to drive over just to find them.
- Baby animals – Due to the time of year we were visiting, we got the opportunity to see lots of mommas and their babies. There isn’t anything much cuter than baby lions, elephants, and impala.
- Elephants – Ted’s favorite animal to see. We saw lots.
- Giraffes – Sarah’s favorite. Oh, and to see a giraffe running is incredible – it appears to be happening in slow motion.
Game drive with Ocean – Ocean was one of our guides with Ted’s parents and he kept things interesting. Within a couple hours we saw 4 of the Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos) and evaded an aggressively charging male elephant!
- First rhinoceros – Finally! After our Botswana safari and several days in the Kruger Park area we were beginning to think they didn’t exist. But they do!
- Cheetah with it’s kill – What an amazing site to come upon. We didn’t realize it had just hunted until the little impala almost got away and the cheetah had to finish it off.
- Surprise night-time leopard sighting – Last night in the Kruger Park area and our way back to the lodge we magically came upon a leopard.
- Lotsa fish – Between snorkeling with the Martens and SCUBA diving in Moz, we got to see some great underwater animals as well!
Speaking of safety and security issues, this is a technology highly utilized in the South African market – wireless credit card machines. Why? Because you shouldn’t let your credit card out of your sight in this country – it’s a well-known scam to steal your info while the card is being processed. Sucks to have to worry about issues like this…
South Africa is an amazingly beautiful country. The diversity of landscapes, cultures, animals, and cities is world-class, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time down there. Based purely on its tourist merits, South Africa might just be one of the world’s top destinations. But South Africa also has a very dark cloud over its head, one that is omnipresent, and one that will take many years to clear.
South Africa’s cloud is safety and security, rooted in their post-apartheid recovery. Bottom line – a lot of bad stuff happens there, and it happens all the time. Don’t get me wrong – one can travel safely and comfortably very easily (otherwise, I wouldn’t have invited our parents over to visit!). We made it all over the country, including a week stint in its most dangerous city, with no issues whatsoever. But, you gotta be smart about how you travel here, and you gotta be even smarter about how you live here.
South Africans live behind walls, security systems, electric fences, and razor wire. In the cities, nearly all middle class communities are gated and guarded, and almost everyone has been (or knows someone who has been) robbed, assaulted, or car-jacked – likely multiple times. At night, you don’t walk anywhere that isn’t within a guarded area. In some places, it’s totally acceptable to run red lights, if you feel your safety is in question. At first, I was appalled to hear that people live in such circumstances, but South Africans look at it as an everyday challenge that needs to be dealt with. And to their credit, they’ve created a very comfortable and modern lifestyle that avoids these threats. Thriving JoBurg suburbs like Sandton have beautiful malls with enclosed courtyards and parks that people flock to for social gatherings. Housing neighborhoods feel like ones at home, just with big walls surrounding them. A security industry that must lead the country’s economy ensures that your office, home, school, car, etc are looked after while you’re out. In short, South Africans have figured out how to live well in a dangerous place.
In reality, most of the country is not very dangerous at all – it’s mainly the big cities. Living and traveling safely here is simply a matter of being a bit more vigilant in your actions and precautions. We found ourselves being particularly conscious of leaving nothing visible in our cars, planning our routes around safe areas, avoiding walking at night (in most places), and minimizing the valuables we had on us at any point in time. The result – no problems, and a killer visit to this amazing country.
South Africa, despite its challenges, is an fabulous place that we highly recommend you check out. From the incredible game of Kruger National Park, to the flat-topped Drakensburg Mountains, to the wetlands of St. Lucia, to the beaches of the Wild and Garden Coasts, to the vibrancy of Cape Town, and more – this country has it all. It may be years before the dark cloud of Apartheid finally disappears, but in the meantime, do what the South Africans do: work around the security challenges – the rewards are well worth the effort.
Ok, so apartheid didn’t end yesterday, but it ended in 1994, less than one generation ago, and that is damn recent. Without a doubt, the country has come a long way in those 17 years, thanks to the amazing work of leaders like Nelson Mandela, but the deep wounds created by those years of hate and segregation are far from healed. You can still feel the racial tension in the air – not everywhere, and not all the time, but there is an undertone of animosity.
To our surprise, the anger, mistrust, and hate is not just a black-white problem. Within the white population, people of British decent and the Afrikaners of Dutch decent are fond of jabbing at one another, sometimes playfully, and other times not. Within the black population, there is inter-tribe tension, as well as serious xenophobia against immigrants from other African nations. But certainly the biggest scar was cut by the black-white laws of apartheid.
A number of white South Africans I spoke with think their country is going downhill, fast. Some of the more racist whites flat out blame the black population, but the more educated ones just realize that it’s crime and government corruption fueling the problems they cite. Many whites are unsure of their future in their home country, and have back-up plans to move to Australia, the UK, or somewhere else.
From the perspective of a traveler, most of this tension is below the radar. Only after spending a month there and asking uncomfortable questions of locals was I able to draw out the picture I have laid out above. Having dug into this territory though, I found myself wanting to be recognized as an outsider – a rather ironic position to be in. See, for the first time since we left, I didn’t feel like a tourist that stuck out every where we went. While not always a bad thing to be the tourist that sticks out in Latin America, I generally do what I can to keep a low profile. But in South Africa, I looked just like every other white South African. At first, I thought it would be nice to blend in finally, but after a short while, I wished that I had a big sign on me that said “touro”. Not because I wanted to stick out as a good target for pick-pocketing, but because I wanted to separate myself from the group of people that most black South Africans still hold bitter feelings towards – the white population. I wanted to say, “Listen, I was not one of the people oppressing you during apartheid, I’m just a visitor that wants to see your beautiful country.”
Unfortunately, there are still many problems that are intertwined with the apartheid recovery process, namely crime and security (another post in itself). Fortunately, things are improving rather quickly, and a lot of progress has been made in a relatively short period of time. If we look in the mirror, we’re hardly ones to lecture – 50 years beyond the Civil Rights Movement in the US and nearly 150 years since slavery was abolished, and we’re still battling with race issues today.
All things considered, South Africa has made some impressive strides forward in an uphill battle, one that they are committed to overcoming. The good news is, as a tourist to the country, you are helping them to fight this battle (the tourism industry is crucial to their continued economic development), and you likely won’t feel more than hint of the underlying tensions.
Johannesburg, South Africa has the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in all of Africa (and all of the world). That is not something to be proud of and it was not a place we were looking forward to spending time. People warn you to drive around with your windows up and doors locked with nothing inviting visible in the car. Car-jackings are common and people wouldn’t hesitate to break a window and take your bag from the backseat if they so desired. Everyone lives behind a high wall with a security system and electric or barbed wire fence. Walking in some parts of the city, even during the daytime, is not advised. And the list goes on.
However, with our parents flights taking them in and out of the JoBurg airport (visits 8 and 9 out of 10 to JHB), and with the visa and passport stuff we had to take care of there (4 visits to the Indian Consulate, 3 to the Mozambique Consulate, 1 to the US Embassy), we ended up spending a total of 9 nights in this scary place. To its credit, we experienced absolutely no problems beyond our own paranoia. We came across some lovely neighborhoods, beautiful outdoor malls, safe and prosperous suburbs, a very interesting museum about Apartheid, and delicious restaurants. We saw how people can live comfortably here and why they might choose to do so!
We have to give some special recognition to Patrick at Mbizi Backpackers, where we stayed 8 (non-consectutive) nights in JoBurg. He runs a great little spot in the house that he grew up in, and at this point we have spent more days at his place than in any other spot on our travels.
However to prove that JoBurg is kinda as scary as we were warned, between stays at Mbizi while we were in Mozambique, poor Patrick got robbed for over the 30th TIME in his life, and his neighbor’s girlfriend got car-jacked the same night. Yikes! I guess we should be thankful that we made it out safely after all…
I’m not sure I have enough stories to fill a post about our time in the amazingly peaceful Tofo Beach (but I’ve definitely got enough pictures to make you jealous of our time there!). That’s not to say we didn’t have a great time, we had a fabulous time – what I mean is that we didn’t do a whole lot. We’d sleep until our little beach bungalow got too warm and then we’d throw on our swimsuits and go sit overlooking the beach. We would read, go for walks, talk to fun people staying at the hostel, wander into to town, go swimming, and watch the sun go down. We’d then clean up for dinner, gather a group together and check out one of the handful of eating establishments within walking distance.
Highlights and memories of the week include:
- Top-notch SCUBA diving – we hadn’t been since May 2008 so we were long overdue for a dive. The quantity and variety of fish and critters was fantastic and the coral reefs were no more than a 10 minute boat ride from shore.
- Aggressive salesmen in the form of 8 to 12-year old boys trying to sell you their hand-made beaded bracelets. I bought about 8 of them!
- Caprinhas – Think crab cakes but served in the shell of a crab! Cheap, beautifully presented and irresistably good.
- Staying awake for the sunrise – It’s been awhile since either of us had pulled an all-nighter but the night was perfect and our company was entertaining.
- Ted identified a brush fire that was scarily close to our very flammable reed bungalow, and the staff was so grateful that they gave him free drinks all night long.
- Swimming in the ocean every day! We’ve seen a lot of snow and climbed a lot of mountains on our trip, but we were still way behind in the ocean department. The current was VERY strong but waves were a lot of fun.
And that’s about it. We did some variation of the above activities every day and we loved it! Moz, as it is affectionately called, was very good to us. I see why South Africans have been keeping it a secret!