Day 1! Get, set, go: Caravan meet-up, September 17, 2021
On Day 1, a meet-up location and time was convened on, at a gas station towards the north of Johannesburg. We were arriving from Vanderbijlpark, about 100 km south of Johannesburg.
(Note: Gas stations are often quite nice, with cafés, mini-marts, and rest rooms. Sometimes you are expected to leave a coin or two if you use the restroom.)
When the entire group was assembled, we drove off trying to remain one car behind the other, in case an issue arose. One vehicle, a Land Rover, was missing in action: its A/C wasn’t working; so its owners decided to catch up with us later, after getting it repaired.
We drove north through Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and Lephalane (that used to have a European name, during Apartheid). We still didn’t have the printed results of our PCR tests, and one participant was able to arrange getting them at a print shop in a mall.
Once we had them, we could continue the journey to the border of Botswana, at the Groblersburg/Martin’s Drift border post, crossing the Limpopo River.
Crossing the border was tedious. We had to share the space with many trucks, needed to get our test result paperwork approved, then show our passports, and then wait (among the truck drivers) for what seemed like ages to show the vehicles’ paperwork. Most people at the post were masked, although as in so many places in the world, masks sometimes slipped below the nose.
Finally, we got through the ordeal, and were still aiming to reach our planned campsite before nightfall, via the A1 towards Francistown.
Roads are good in Botswana. However, cattle (and horses, sheep, goats, donkeys, and towards Zimbabwe, elephants, too) cross the road, unattended, at all times, which makes driving rather dangerous and slows things down quite a bit.
We reached Francistown when it was already dusk, and from there needed to find our way to Woodlands Stopover and Lodge. It wasn’t easy in the dark. We figured out where to turn off the main A3 road, onto a dirt road without lights, and reached our overnight destination (where we had ordered dinner, too).
(It's quite flat, and dry, too, in September.)
The food was packed in aluminum containers and was cold. The reception people asked if we hadn’t brought a microwave with us! We had many things but no microwave. Finally we were allowed to use a hut with a microwave, emptied the containers one by one into paper plates and heated them up. In the meantime the camp was pitch black dark; out with the headlamps: a very important item on this trip! The cottages we rented had no sheets, and rather than use the sheets we had brought for our tents, most of us decided to just use our tents. We were tired and hungry. There was no WiFi, and it would be prohibitively expensive to use our US cell coverage in Botswana, unlike in South Africa. In the morning, at least we could see what was around us! The ablutions area was quite nice, however, there was no hot water.
(The food was good, at least, even if some didn’t get what they had ordered.)
Day 2 – Sept 18
The next morning, we needed to leave early to make sure we reached the Zimbabwe border before our PCR test was more than 48 hours old. As we pulled out, the missing Land Rover arrived to join us – that was a relief!
Back on the A3 towards Zimbabwe, at the only border crossing open, due to Covid: Victoria Falls, which was to my delight as I had heard so much about those waterfalls, and they hadn’t been part of the original plan.
As US citizens, we paid $30 each for our visa entry into Zimbabwe. South Africans pay less. At the border post there signs pointing to Zambia and Namibia. Both are next door.
In Victoria Falls, we stayed at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp, where we shared a 2-bedroom “self-catering” cottage, with bathroom and fully equipped kitchen, with Vicky and her partner. Cost per couple: $83.
We booked via the Victoria Falls Tourism Board. As usual for foreigners in Zimbabwe: paid in USD, cash.
We arrived too late to make our own dinner, especially after driving for hours and hours to beat the Covid test deadline. We were recommended a restaurant, The Three Monkeys, where we found attentive wait staff and a large menu. Note: In all the places where we ate during this trip, no or little “real” African food was on offer, but rather international, Western-style food. After tips, with wine/beer, we paid $25 each for a plentiful meal. We asked the staff how they had coped during lockdown. They told us that local people from surrounding areas kept the business going, as there were no foreign tourists.
Day 3 – September 19
The next morning, we set off to the Falls, where once again, as American visitors, we paid a higher entrance fee (fair enough). I was warned at the last minute that I should wear waterproof clothing – which I didn’t really have in my luggage, so I put on a hoodie and a sun hat. The closer you get to the Falls, the more it resembles a rainforest. Sometimes it downright pours rain! But oh, what a wonder to behold these absolutely majestic waterfalls. I don’t know Niagara Falls (I was there only as a baby), but I was told that Victoria Falls is more impressive. It’s quite a long walk to view the entire area, from the Zimbabwe side, and you come out drenched, but delighted.
We had to keep on going to make our way to the next stop: Sinamatella Campsite in the Hwange National Preserve. To get there from Victoria Falls, we had to drive for a couple of hours through a coal mining site. It was gray all over the place, dusty, with an astringent smell when we dared open our windows.
We reached the entrance to the Hwange Preserve, waited for a while to show our IDs, and pay our entrance fee. Then we drove over dirt roads for another 15 km on to the campsite, where we prepared dinner in the barbecue area after setting up our tents.
There is a covered open-air dining area with 2 long tables, and benches on each side. The “ablutions” area was a free-standing structure, men entered on one side, women on the other. Hot water was arranged by park rangers via a wood-burning stove.
A tiny frog appeared to live on the edge of the wall tile in one toilet, and an even smaller frog lived in the toilet bowl, and did not want to be fished out!
(The wall tiles in one shower room also crashed down. It was hard to tell whether the tiles were recently installed or not. The next day, the park rangers, unruffled, removed the fallen tiles.)
Cost: $34 + gratuities for the charming female park rangers.