Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Chobe River

We woke up at 5:45 to catch the 6:30 bus from Maun to Nata. The night before we scheduled a cab to pick us up that morning at 6:00. Getting up was more chaotic than normal because we forgot where we put our passports before the mokoro trip. At the same time, Temple was searching frantically for the Deet bug repellant, haunted by the malaria risk. As our bag emptying search ensued, we failed to notice that the cab hadn't shown. We asked the only employee of the backpackers who was up that early but unfortunately he didn't speak much English. We asked if he could call a cab then he indicated he was also looking for a ride into town. So we gave up on the cab but hoped we could catch a minibus to town from the main road, which was a five minute walk from the hostel. With our new traveling companion in tow we walked down the dirt road over the old bridge to the main road. As we neared we flagged down a speeding van. As soon as we saw break lights we all broke into a sprint. When we got to the mini we threw our packs on the roof rack and squeezed in with 15 other passengers half of them school children in uniform. When we arrived at the bus station at 6:36 the bus to Nata was nowhere to be found but at least our bags were still on the roof. We had to wait for the 8:00 bus which turned out to be our lucky break.

Around 8:00 we departed for the four hour drive across Botswana to Nata. The road is almost perfectly straight save for a few potholes and detours. We slept most of the way. Nata isn't so much a town as a gas station at a crossroads. We had the option of squeezing into a hot minibus for a four hour drive on the bumpy road to Kasane or hitchhiking. When we inquired about the minibus we were told that it was already full because the previous mini had broken down. Supposedly, it was easy to hitch to Kasane because everyone in Nata is either headed there or coming from there. I first asked for a ride from a young British couple because they reminded me of us but their car was a compact and filled with supplies. Then I asked two guys in a row who were both from Kasane but not headed home at the moment. I next approached a Land Rover that was completely decked out in safari gear. I asked the driver if he was heading to Kasane. He replied angrily, "Look. You're the second guy to ask me. You guys need to take a look in the back. We're completely full. And, yes we're going to Kasane." I told him to take it easy and walked away.

On the other side of the pump was a BMW SUV filling up. In the drivers seat was a cool looking guy in sunglasses. I repeated my question, sure to be turned away. He was headed to Kasane, further even to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said he could give us a lift and just needed to rearrange a few things. At first, I thought he was alone but soon Sharon, aka Stone, appeared from the gas station. We said hello and she didn't seem too surprised to see us. It took a while but Jason's amazing repacking job cleared the entire back seat. Sweet, we thought. This is a major improvement from the prospective minibus. We were climbing in when he said, "Patrick, we got two more passengers." We both looked over to see Patrick lumbering towards the car. A sort of South African Ignatius Reilly who we would soon be calling Opa (Afrikaans for grandfather). We had our bags between our feet and on our laps and Temple was squeezed between Opa and me. It was 300 kilometers to Kasane and we couldn't be happier squeezed in with the A/C on full blast and Lauren Hill on Jason's iPod.

We learned only a few details about our new companions. They were all from Jo'burg so we talked about South Africa and how much fun we had there. Jason had work in the DRC and traveled this road a lot. Opa had never in his 62 years left his home country until Jason offered to bring him along on one of his business trips. And Stone and Opa lived in the same house and were friends of many years. Temple enjoyed Jason's soundtrack and Opa and Sharon shared dirty jokes. The five of us were becoming fast friends.

After a bout of pothole weaving we were closing in on Kasane. The three of them had started at 2:00am that morning from Jo'burg and had traveled all the way through Botswana in a day. They were going to continue in the morning and Jason offered to take us to Livingstone, Zambia. I asked Jason if he knew any good backpackers in Kasane. "In Africa, I leave the backpackers to you guys" he said. Jason was a sharp dresser and his BMW had all the bells and whistles. He was clearly a step above bunk beds. We didn't have a real plan for Kasane but we told him we were looking to do a cruise along the Chobe riverfront. Jason said, "Maybe we'll get there in time for the sundowners tonight." We didn't think much of this at the time and were mainly trying to pick out a hostel from our guidebook. Jason said he usually stays at the Chobe Lodge and that maybe we could stay there. Temple mentioned that it may not fit in our budget but we could take a taxi from there to the backpackers. As we drove through Kasane we were reading about places to stay. In our book we read "Chobe Game Lodge, the pinnacle of Botswanan Luxury." Way out of our league.

Not five minutes later we pulled through the gates of the Lodge, a five star resort on the banks of the Chobe River. Jason went to the front desk to check in. He came back and asked, "What's the budget?" Trying not to sound cheap in the pinnacle of luxury, Temple said 50 bucks. Jason said "There's a chalet with three bedrooms so you guys can have one of the rooms." I asked, "Is it in the budget?" "Yes, don't worry about it. We'll figure it out later." Um okay? Jason then asked the concierge about a sundowner cruise for the five of us. A boat was about to pull out so we hurried to put our stuff down in the chalet. A minute later we were on a deluxe booze cruise surrounded by hippos, crocs and elephants. We were laughing at our luck, Opa's jokes, and the antics of the hippos. Jason had his camcorder out and Temple and I were snapping away.

After the cruise, we returned to the chalet to freshen up for dinner. Luckily, we clean up nice. We joined the others for a lovely meal. Over dinner Opa continued to give his life lessons. Our companions were all exhausted from driving since 2:00 am and soon went to bed. Temple and I walked around the lodge and tried to wrap our minds around our good luck. We laughed at what characters they were and marveled at how nice Jason was. Soon we were back in the chalet sleeping in crisp white linens on non-bunk beds.

We woke up at 6:00 the next morning to catch the Jason Express to Livingstone. We all piled back into the car for the short ride to the border. We attempted to hand Jason some gas money but he refused. To enter Zambia you take a ferry and your vehicle across the Zambezi river. We enjoyed the ride knowing we were upriver from Victoria Falls. In all the excitement we forgot we needed US dollars to pay for our Zambian visas, $80 a piece for double entry. At immigration, I asked Jason if we could borrow money for the visas and pay him back in Livingstone. He handed me two crisp hundred dollar bills. Once again we were amazed by his generosity and very determined to pay him back. When we tried to give him the change he said hold on to it until Livingstone. We waited by the car as Jason took car of customs and paid road tolls.

Once we were in Zambia, Jason said he knew a great breakfast spot right next to the falls. Pretty soon we were pulling into another five star resort, this one with an amazing breakfast buffet. I finished eating and ran to the resort bank to get money to pay Jason back for the visa money and some portion of the other expenses he'd taken care of. Meanwhile, Jason, Stone and Opa went to take a quick look at Vic Falls. Back from the bank, Temple and I acted like regulars of the resort and I took a swim in their large pool. When our three compadres returned we walked to the car to get our bags, thanking Jason all the way for everything. When we handed him our email addresses along with the reimbursement he refused the money again. "Have a beer on me." After some profuse thanks and hugs, we said goodbye to these kind strangers as they headed off to DRC. We stood there in the parking lot glad we'd missed that 6:30 bus.


foster said...

Great story beautifully told.

Addie said...

That warms my heart that yall sound such sweet people.