Botswana Here We Come!

Dear gentle and patient readers,

Sorry for the hiatus in posting. The holidays, winter illness, and life in general have slowed me down. However, I do promise to finish the tale of our journey in Africa.

The day we left Cape Town bound for Botswana we rose early and collected a packed box breakfast from our hotel since we were too early for the served breakfast. The drive to the airport was easy and fast, and the car rental return was both close by and quick. Cape Town’s airport was refurbished and updated when South Africa hosted the World Cup soccer championship in 2010. It is of a good size and modern without being too big. Because we had rather a lot of luggage, a porter helped us into the terminal from the car rental return which is in the parking garage adjacent. He was quite a character! He was the #2 porter at the Cape Town airport and had been working there for at least fifteen years. I am sorry that I did not write down his name. The porters have numbers that are given to them when they start work, so there was only one other porter who had been there longer. With his assistance we found the VAT Refund desk, took care of our business and located the check in counter for our Air Botswana direct flight to Maun, Botswana. The re-packing of our luggage after showing purchases to the VAT desk was a bit comical! I quickly determined that it wasn’t all going to fit in our suitcases. So we found a luggage shop and bought a cheap duffle bag. This solved the space problem but we still spent some time on the floor of the airport with all our bags open rearranging things to protect the fragile stuff. A rather bemused ticket agent looked on. Sometimes when you find yourself in an embarrassing situation when you travel you just have to suck it up and accept it.

Fortunately we had allowed plenty of time to accomplish all this and had no trouble checking in for our flight and finding the gate area. Unfortunately our flight was delayed. They never told us why or for how long. We just sat there until they finally called us for boarding. It turned out they had decided to switch equipment and use a smaller plane. Even so, it wasn’t totally full. The bad part was that after a delay to board the flight, the smaller plane took at least an hour longer to make the journey (prop vs. jet). So in the end, we arrived in Maun, Botswana quite late. Maun is a small town with a tiny airport that serves as a gateway to the Okavango Delta and its safari lodges. The lodges in the Delta are mostly accessed by small plane so Maun is where you pick those up. After clearing customs in Maun we were met by the staff of Wilderness Safaris. They were quick to take our extra luggage for storage, give us bottles of water, and stand in line for us to check in for their flight to Chitabe, one of their lodges in the Delta and our first destination. They hurried us along through security and out to the waiting plane with one other couple. The weather was looking a bit iffy with a thunder shower headed our way and clearly they had been anxious to get us out of there. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat with Michael and the other gentleman behind in two seats and the other woman in the back seat. You couldn’t have fit any others the plane was so small! We taxied and took off just as the rain started. Lightning flashed occasionally and I wondered if little planes ever got struck. To his credit, our pilot did a masterful job and we flew away from the storm and over the flat landscape about 20 minutes to the landing strip near Chitabe.


Do I look nervous?


Tiny plane! We made it!

The landing was smooth, the sun was out, and there was a Land Cruiser waiting to take us to camp. Jonas, a guide in training, welcomed us, handed us the personal, chilled, reusable, stainless steel water bottles we would use during our stay, and drove us to camp. Along the way we had our first taste of safari in Botswana – open plains, savanna woodland, water, and lots of animals! Just on the drive to the camp we saw zebra, giraffe, impala, elephant, and baboons.


Still some clouds nearby.

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When we arrived at camp we were greeted with singing and warm hospitality. We were a good deal later than they had planned, but they still had tea waiting for us and we sat down with one of the camp managers to get oriented and learn the schedule. Then we were shown to our tented “room” to freshen up and urged to return soon to go out and join the afternoon game drive which was already in progress.

Since there was no WiFi or any access to the internet at Chitabe, I was unable to do any posting while there. However I did write a passage about our time and will share that along with more photos in my next post.

The View From the Top

Our last day in Cape Town we spent most of the morning getting organized for our onward journey. We had to repack for more safari and temporary bag storage, and we needed to organize our purchases so that we could request a VAT refund at the airport before flying to Botswana. I looked up the requirements for VAT refunds online and found we needed to present the items along with the receipts for inspection. This meant that we had to have all our purchases separated from our packed luggage, and then after the inspections we would need to pack them away to check our bags for the flight. Because we were headed off on safari with very limited baggage allowances, we couldn’t simply carry them on the plane. One thing I would recommend when traveling abroad to countries that charge a VAT on purchases is to look up the rules and procedures for getting your refund before you get to the last minute. In the case of South Africa, you have to have an official tax receipt and not all vendors automatically provide this. Knowing that ahead of time would have been helpful. Lesson learned. We were debating whether to do our requesting in Cape Town on the way to Botswana, or to wait until our layover in Johannesburg on the way home. We decided on Cape Town which turned out to be much the best idea.

After getting ourselves sorted, we felt free to go off and spend the day at leisure. We found that what little cloud cover there had been in the morning had disappeared. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and perfect weather for a trip up to the top of Table Mountain! We drove ourselves up the hill to the parking area for the Aerial Cableway that provides a scenic and effortless way to the top. The wait was not long and soon we were gliding up the mountain in a gondola with a revolving floor, providing all passengers with a good view.


You can just see the gondola in the very center of the picture.


On the way up we saw there were rock climbers scaling the cliffs and hikers looking like tiny dots on the trails. At the top, the temperature was cooler but still nice, and the wind was not too strong. Sometimes they have to close the Cableway because of bad weather or high winds, so we lucked out with the perfect day. Needless to say, the view was stunning.


Camps Bay

P1020882 P1020886 P1020888 There are a number of trails that wander across the top of Table Mountain giving you a chance to stretch your legs and take in the views from different vantage points. We made the circuit and enjoyed looking into the distance at some of the places we had been the day before. Michael even spotted a whale in the water way down below. Sharp eyes! We also saw people arriving at the top by the more traditional method of hiking up a switchbacked trail. Judging by the sweat on their brows, I’d say they earned their Wheaties!


Notice the people on the trail along the top of Table Mountain


This is where the trail from the bottom comes up

This is where the trail from the bottom comes up


You can see some of the trails zig zagging along the side of the mountain.


The City Bowl laid out below

The City Bowl laid out below

After spending some time soaking it all in and enjoying the magnificent view, we had some refreshment at the mountaintop café and then boarded the Cableway for the ride down. If you like a good view, then going to the top of Table Mountain is definitely an activity I would recommend in Cape Town, assuming the weather cooperates. If you have issues with heights, you can stand near the center of the gondola and be surrounded by people without having to see any real drop-offs. At the top there are areas to take in the view that have walls between you and the cliff’s edge, though there are other areas without this protection. I don’t think I would enjoy it very much if it were extremely windy or the weather was bad, but on the day we went, it was perfect and you could see for miles.

Signal hill with City Bowl and Robben Island in the distance where Nelson Mandela was held in prison.

Lions Head and Signal Hill with City Bowl and Robben Island in the distance where Nelson Mandela was held in prison.


Back at our hotel, we relaxed a little before heading down to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront for sunset and some dinner. We decided to take a taxi so that we wouldn’t have to deal with driving in the city at night or finding parking on our return. It was fun to see yet another side of Cape Town. The V & A Waterfront is a developed area right on the harbor that bears some similarity to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, although it is newer, more modern, and more attractive than its American counterpart. Sorry San Francisco! There are shops, restaurants, hotels and marinas with outdoor areas to stroll and view the activity. It is a working harbor as well, so there are commercial buildings and wharfs and vessels of all sorts in the water.

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On the way there our cabbie had told us about the Volvo Ocean Race which had just arrived to spend a few weeks in Cape Town as one of its ports of call. It brought a lot of people, business, and jobs to the waterfront. When we arrived there were big signs pointing the way to a special area to view the boats etc. We looked around a bit and then decided to wander in that direction. On the way we saw a couple of bands busking.


As it turns out, our timing was impeccable. The Volvo Ocean Race is an around the world sailing race and this year, the first leg was from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa, over 6,000 miles! We actually saw the first two boats arrive in port after more than 25 days at sea! The Abu Dhabi Ocean Team finished first, followed by the Dongfeng Race Team. We saw these two boats being fêted with music and cheering as they backed into their spots on the wharf. They were very high tech looking while also looking quite bare the way true racing boats do. I’m sure the crews must have been very tired after such a long journey, but also relieved.

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We watched the festivities for a bit and then found an Indian restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking the waterfront for our dinner. We were joined by lots of other people also enjoying the beautiful evening. After a pleasant dinner we wandered the shops and stopped to see one of the same bands again. Eventually we made our way back to the taxi stand and had some more interesting conversation with a cabbie on the way home. The waterfront was a lively place and it was a fun spot to spend a few hours.


Table Mountain in the late light

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To Cape Town

The day after our wine tour we were scheduled to drive to Cape Town where we would spend four nights. We knew the drive wasn’t far and so we took our time getting packed up and breakfasting at The Coach House before leaving. It was Sunday morning and once again the sun was shining. After saying goodbye to Franschhoek we drove through the valley to Stellenbosch, one of the other wine towns. Stellenbosch, which is home to a University, is a good deal larger than Franschhoek, which is really more of a village. We found our way to the main center of town and parked so we could walk around. Not everything was open since it was Sunday, however we found plenty of shops to occupy us for a bit. Though Stellenbosch was pleasant, I was pleased I had chosen Franschhoek instead for our stay.

After our bit of shopping, we got back in the car and headed for Cape Town. As we got closer, the traffic and speeds increased steadily. As we merged onto the highway we saw a strange sight over in a field. It looked like a large sailing vessel but there was no water anywhere. Then we remembered that Aylmer had told us about a set from a pirate movie that had been filmed near Cape Town, and how you could still visit it. Here is what we saw.


Michael drove and I navigated. I was happy that I had had the foresight to print out the directions to the hotel before we left the U.S., and that I could actually find them almost three weeks later! Between that and my iPad, it really wasn’t too bad, but it certainly was the most urban environment we had driven in yet. We found our hotel and a parking space in front at just about 3pm – perfect timing for check-in. An African Villa is a small boutique hotel with perhaps 16 or 18 rooms. It’s actually 3 townhouses that were connected, restored, and transformed into the hotel. It had funky, modern, artsy decor, comfortable common areas, and a small pool and terrace garden in back. Our room was on the second floor and had a nice balcony overlooking the street.


Our room at An African Villa


The balcony

The balcony

We enjoyed having a little extra space and the idea of not going anywhere for four nights. One of the first things we did was sort out how to get some laundry done. After unpacking and relaxing a bit, we went downstairs and sat down with Louis, one of the hotel managers, who guided us through an introduction to Cape Town and the most popular sights, restaurants, shopping, etc. He made a reservation for us for dinner that evening at a local asian place called Saigon. It was within walking distance which appealed to us and we were yearning for more ethnic variety in our food. One of the things we paid attention to were the recommendations on safety. Cape Town is a city and as such, presented a different ball of wax in terms of crime and personal security. We had emptied the car of absolutely everything as recommended.

That evening we went out and walked the ten minutes or so to our restaurant up and down some steep hills. Most of Cape Town is situated in a bowl ringed by mountains sloping down towards the harbor. Our hotel was in the Tamberskloof neighborhood which climbs up the side of Signal Hill. It was quite warm out and somewhat humid. When we got to the restaurant, we were told that the power had gone out and therefore they couldn’t serve us. This was a surprise as we hadn’t noticed it on the walk since it wasn’t dark yet. It also presented a bit of a pickle for us. We hadn’t researched other places to go nearby and weren’t sure what to do. I guess the power had gone out while we were walking from the hotel to the restaurant as it had been on when we left. They said it was out all over the city and they weren’t sure when it would come back on. Turned out into the street, we looked around and decided a bird in the hand was the best option. There was an italian restaurant below Saigon which was still serving pizza as they had a wood fired oven that did not require electricity. They allowed as how they could also drum up a salad, so we took a table and ordered some drinks while they were still cold. We have found most of the restaurants in South Africa to be dimly lit, so it was really no different to be trying to read the menu by candlelight! We had sensibly remembered to bring our little travel flashlights too, so that helped. As we waited for our pizza and salad we discussed a couple of issues that we hadn’t thought of before then. Would it be safe to walk back to the hotel with no street lights? Would the electric, keypad operated, outer gate still function? Fortunately for us, we never had to find out. The power came back on just before we left the restaurant. It was a relief to have the streets lit up for our walk back. We hadn’t been in the city long but were already well aware of the homeless population and the potential for unsavory characters. Both Michael and I have traveled plenty and spent time in cities, so we weren’t uncomfortable. However it never hurts to take sensible precautions. In the end we had a fine time that evening and flopped happily into bed with no major agenda for the next day.