Connections: New Friends at the Amber Tree

Traveling is a wonderful way to meet people! Unfortunately, often those connections are strong but only fleeting. Connections is our tag to recognize and remember some of the wonderful people we meet.

We truly enjoyed the Amber Tree Lodge in Cape Town. It had great common areas and a good group of travelers. We met many wonderful people from all over the world. We especially enjoyed chatting with people late into the evening: a new friend from Argentina, practicing his English, another from Chicago, a fellow teacher (so great to get in some good teacher talk), and more from the UK, dentists in training. Wine was consumed and a great time was had by all!

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Budget: South Africa

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This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at South Africa. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In South Africa we used South African Rand. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 10 rand to one dollar.

Total Spent (16 days): $1380.23

This does not include the days spent on our self-drive safari.

We normally break down into the following categories:

Accommodation: $550.11

We stayed only at hostels in South Africa.

Activities: $344.75

This included the various tours as well as entrance fees to sights that we took in Joburg and Cape Town.

Alcohol: $34.29

Food: $299.49

We ate out only a little in South Africa. We mostly bought food from the supermarket and cooked our own meals at hostels.

Miscellaneous: $23.24

This included laundry, stamps, and souvenirs.

This divides out to $86.26/day which, thankfully, is under our $100/day budget. Yay!

Cape Town

After our self-drive safari, we traveled via train to Cape Town. We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful city. We had a week there, but we wished that we could have spent more time!

Where We Stayed

Scalabrini Centre – The first four nights we stayed in the Scalabrini Centre which was right in the City Bowl of Cape Town. We chose it initially because it was quite close to the train station and we knew it was within walking distance to many of the sites. We enjoyed the hostel so much that we booked past our initial two nights. It was very clean and cute. The other great thing is that the Scalabrini Centre serves as a refugee service center in Cape Town and also has English classes. We felt good knowing that some of our money was going to support a good cause. We were trying to save money after our expensive self-drive safari, so we chose to stay in the dorm. This turned out to be a good choice. We shared the 6-bed dorm with 1 other person the first night and then had it to ourselves after that. The one downside was that not a lot of other people were there, so we weren’t able to make many connections

Amber Tree Lodge – For the rest of our week, we decided to move to a little bit more touristy area, closer to Long Street and to Table Mountain. We loved the Amber Tree. We stayed in the dorm and were slightly disappointed just because there was ALWAYS someone sleeping in the dorm which made every day living slightly difficult. However, there was a fabulous common area and we really enjoyed meeting and making friends with many of the other travelers. 

What We Did

District 6 Museum

District 6 was a neighborhood in Cape Town that was made up of mostly colored (an official designation of race during apartheid) people. During apartheid, the government decided that this area, because it was quite close to the city center should instead be designated a white area. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed from District 6 and much of the area was razed. There is now a museum to commemorate the neighborhood. We found it interesting – almost a scrapbook dedicated to what was- lots of local stories and remembrances.

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Castle of Good Hope

The Castle of Good Hope was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. It was built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1660s. It is quite beautiful, yellow walls and a star shape. Entrance includes a free tour which we quite enjoyed. We also were fortunate to see the “Key Ceremony” at noon.

Robben Island

Take a trip out to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela (and many others) were incarcerated.

Traveling down the Cape Peninsula

We choose to take a tour with the Baz Bus one day to get us all the way down the Cape Peninsula. While a bit expensive, we thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it hit many places we were interested in seeing. The first stop was Hout Bay which was quite beautiful. We then continued over Chapman’s Peak Drive which was a marvel of engineering and gorgeous. We stopped at Simon’s Town to visit the African Penguins at Boulders Beach. We rode bikes in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park. The unique flora and fauna here have helped to label it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then we visited both Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (the most southwestern point in Africa). We had a fantastic tour guide who made sure we were never bored and we learned a lot.

Bo-Kaap

Bo-Kaap is neighborhood in Cape Town that was essentially a township know as the Cape Malay Quarter. It was populated by slaves initially. Today it is a beautiful neighborhood where you can find Cape Malay food and amazing colorful buildings. It is also the heart of Islam in Cape Town. We enjoyed lunch here and then visited the Bo-Kaap Museum. It was a small museum but we quite enjoyed meeting and chatting with the man who worked there about Cape Town, as well as American history.

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Cape Town City Sightseeing Tour

This is one of those bright red double decker bus tours that we also did in Joburg. We really enjoyed our tour there so we decided to try it in Cape Town as well. Cape Town has many more options and different lines to choose from. We chose the Blue Line which we knew would take us into wine country south of Cape Town.

Our first top was the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. This garden was huge and amazingly beautiful. Della really enjoyed the section where they asked to you to touch and smell different plants. We also liked the garden which highlighted endangered and extinct plants, the protea garden, and the new tree canopy walkway. The curse of the city sightseeing tours is that you have to stick to a schedule if you want to visit more than one place in  day. We could have spent MUCH more time in the gardens than we did. It is definitely worth a whole day.

The second stop for us was the Groot Constantia Wine Estate. This is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It was started in the late 1600s by members of the Dutch East India Company. It took awhile but it then began to compete with all the fine wines in Europe and has continued to make excellent wine since then. We took the cellar tour and participated in a delicious wine tasting. We then wandered the vineyard and explored the historical buildings.

Climb Table Mountain 

No trip to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. There are two ways to get up- the cable car or hiking. We knew we wanted to take on the challenge and hike it! There are several routes up, but we decided on the most popular called Platteklip Gorge. We were very disappointed when we woke up on our last full day in Cape Town… The weather forecast had been for beautiful sunny weather, but instead a layer of mist was everywhere. This was the view of Table Mountain at first.

Table Mountain should be there.

Table Mountain should be there.

We were angry with ourselves with leaving it for the last day, but we decided to do it anyway. We were thrilled when we arrived at the base of the Gorge (via taxi) to see that we had risen above the mist. The hike was long and difficult- many stairs which felt like we were going straight up (though this is the least strenuous way route up the mountain). There were times where we felt like the clouds were following us. But we made it up and then decided to take a side hike on the top to Maclear’s Beacon which is the tallest point on the mountain. We took a slightly different route back and were amazed by how close the path came to the edge of the cliff. There had been signs warning that this route could be dangerous in wet or windy weather and we could definitely see why. With our beautiful day though, it was a good choice. We then made our way to the other side end of the mountain to the cable car station. We decided to take the cable car down and enjoyed the descent back into the clouds.

 

Where We Ate

We ate in many different places, but we narrowed it down to only two to recommend.

Biesmiellah – This restaurant is located in Bo-Kaap and has been serving Cape Malay food for many years. It is an institution of Bo-Kaap, even mentioned in the museum. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal of Bobotie and Tomato Breedie.

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Eastern Food Bazaar – There were many restaurants similar to this in Cape Town. But we really thought it was fun. It is a long string of counters with different kinds of food, similar to a food court. You would pick what you want and go to a central counter to pay and then go back to the counter with your food. We had huge portions of delicious food for very reasonable prices.

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All this for only $8!

Robben Island

One thing we knew we wanted to do with our time in Cape Town was to visit Robben Island. It is an island off the coast of the city which served as a prison during the Apartheid era, and was where Nelson Mandela was held for the majority of his time behind bars.

If you would like to visit the island, you need to book your trip in advance as it is a very popular tourist attraction. We were lucky in this regard as we were able to only book one day in advance. We heard this was rare. The reason for our luck in booking was due to our unlucky weather. We knew the day would be rainy and cold, and it was possible that tours can be cancelled if the weather is too bad.

The day was, indeed, miserable weather-wise. But we were fortunate that our tour was not cancelled. You travel to the V & A Waterfront and find the Nelson Mandela museum to start the trip. It was very busy and quite crowded as they herded us into the basement, through a metal detector, and then back outside for a walk to the other side of the water where we boarded one of two boats.

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The ride out to the island was approximately 35 min. Because of our poor weather, the sea swells were quite high. It was a bit unfortunate as there were a few people who ended up getting sea sick – not us thankfully!

Once you arrive on the island, you enter a bus and are given an approximately 45 min driving tour. It was interesting to learn about the history of the island which served as a prison for both the Dutch and the English in the very early years. They would just drop off the prisoners there and leave them. It also served as a leper colony and animal quarantine. It also played a role in the defence of Cape Town during WWII and had a large military presence during that time. It also, famously, served as a holding place for mainly political prisoners during the Apartheid era here in SA.

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We were fascinated that there is still a fairly thriving settlement on Robben Island today. Many people live there full time. These people are mainly employees of the Robben Island Museum. It was interesting to hear that both ex-prisoners and ex-guards still work there today… and end up living as neighbors.

After the driving tour, you reach probably the most interesting part of the day. You get off the bus and enter the prison building itself. You are also met by another tour guide – this one will be a former political prisoner of the island. Our guide had been working for the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress) during the early eighties, trying to help smuggle weapons into South Africa from Botswana. He was captured by police, tortured, and thrown in prison in 1983. He served his 7 year sentence and was released in 1990, shortly before the prison was closed. It was very interesting to hear his story and his memories of his time in prison. Near the end of the tour, we were taken to the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.

Overall, despite the horrible weather, which prevented us from seeing what would have been excellent views of Cape Town and Table Mountain,  we really enjoyed the day. We found it a pretty moving experience.

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This picture is not actually from Robben Island. It is from the waterfront when we returned from the island to Cape Town, but it definitely gives you a feel for the weather of the day.

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Shosholoza Meyl Train

After returning our safari truck to Johannesburg, our next stop was Cape Town. To get to Cape Town, we had a few different options. We could have flown or taken a bus, but after reading some glowing reviews of the Shosholoza Meyl train on the Seat 61 train blog, we decided to take to overnight train.

We booked a 2-berth sleeper compartment for the train leaving on a Sunday at 12:30, with expected arrival in Cape Town the next day at 3:30 PM. So we knew it would be a long trip, but we were hoping to see some nice scenery along the way.

Our little compartment was nice and cozy. We had one bench seat that turned into a bed, and one top bunk. We had to pay a little bit extra for bedding, but it wasn’t too bad, especially since they made the beds for us. The compartment also had a small sink that could be covered by a table.

To pass the time, we mostly read books, although we did take a break and play a few hands of cards.

The train did have a dining car, but we didn’t eat any meals there because we couldn’t figure out how to lock our compartment (and we had our big bags in there with us). Luckily though, there was a waitress who came by and took our dinner order and then later brought it. We had a nice beef curry for a very reasonable price.

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The scenery for the first day wasn’t that interesting, but on the second day as we got closer to Cape Town we enjoyed glimpses of the green mountains and some vineyards.

Unfortunately, due to mechanical or other delays, the train didn’t end up getting to Cape Town until 7:30 PM, so it turned out to be more like a 30-hour trip! By the end we were a little ready to experience something besides the confines of our berth!

Overall though, we enjoyed the uniqueness of the train journey across the country!

Cradle of Humankind

Our last stop on our self-drive safari was the Cradle of Humankind. This region just outside of Johannesburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site where many important discoveries of ancient hominid fossils have been found. The Cradle-designated area is rather large, so we chose to visit the two main tourist attractions to be found there: the Maropeng Visitors Centre and the Sterkfontein Caves.

Maropeng

This nice (and relatively new) museum is set up to explain the history of life on Earth and the history of human life as well.

Heading up to the main building

Heading up to the main building

Once you enter the main building, you are taken down into the basement and you do this cheesy but fun boat ride that takes you though the different elements necessary for life.

We then went through the different exhibits in the large space. There ranged from discussions about DNA,to extinct animals, to the different types of hominids that paleoanthropologists have identified (many of which have been found in the Cradle) to what it means to be human. We enjoyed all of the interactive displays as well.

Sterkfontein Caves

The site where many of the most famous fossils have been found is the Sterkfontein Caves, a set of limestone caves in the region. Our ancestors did not live in the caves; instead, they may have fallen into the caves where there bones were very well-preserved. We took the 45 minute tour through the cave itself.

Most of the route through the cave has been developed for tourism, but there were a few tricky spots where we had to walk through while mostly ducking. That’s why we had to wear hard hats!

After our experiences with the cave in Belize, this cave did seem a little tame. Also, we wished that we could have seen the actual excavation areas – they didn’t point out any of these on the areas we walked through. But caves are always fun to explore, so we were glad to say that we saw this one as well.

Roads of the Self-Drive Safari

We talked a lot about the roads of our safari, so we wanted to give you an idea of those as well. Here is a photo essay of the roads we drove while on safari.

Roads of South Africa

There were many big regular highways in South Africa, but our first campsite took us off of them!

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Why did the Kudu cross the road?

Roads of Botswana

There were of course long stretches of tar highways here too. The hardest part was watching for the many many cows and donkeys that constantly decided to cross the road in front of you. There were warthogs leaping out on the road every now and then as well. As we made our way into the parks, the roads became deep sand.

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Why did the springbok cross the road?

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The impalas needed to cross the road as well!

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Here is the road where we got stuck. It was purely accident that we got this picture. We just took it, continued driving and picked the wrong road. It is hard to see how deep the sand was down there… but it was bad!

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We had to drive INTO the river about 15 feet to actually get ONTO this ferry.

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Always watch out for the donkeys!

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This was called third bridge. Not much of a bridge… as you can see.

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Luckily, 4th bridge was a little more bridge like.

Roads of Namibia

After Botswana, Namibia felt like a breeze. No more deep sand, but lots and lots of gravel.

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And why did the elephants cross the road? No… I still don’t have an answer…

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We had to drive into the sun sometimes. This evening was particularly difficult cause there was a lot of dust in the air… we could hardly see!

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Don’t forget to watch out for giraffes!

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And zebra of course!

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It did get a little hilly in Namibia.

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The blind hills were the hardest!

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IMG_0736 The Skeleton Coast felt like we were on another world.

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There were some windy roads!

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IMG_9592_edt We enjoyed the southern African version of waysides or picnic areas. We would see a sign for a table under a tree… and then you’d always see the table under the tree!

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Watch out for the above sign. They meant you were about to cross a river… most likely a dry one. But it was good for a big dip!

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South Africa Self-Drive Safari Stops

The majority of our safari was focused on Botswana and Namibia, but we did pick up and drop off our truck in Johannesburg, so we stayed in South Africa for a few nights at the beginning and end of the trip

Safari Night 1: Waterberg Wildnerness Reserve, between Mookgopong and Polokwane

Getting There
We had just picked up our truck and were still adjusting to driving a large 4×4 truck on the left side of the road, so we were happy that this reserve was only a few hours away.

It was a little-nerve-wracking getting to the site though, because they were doing road construction and we had to take this pretty wild side path. Luckily one of the managers showed us the way or we might never have found it!

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Campsite
This was a very nice site. Nice trees isolating us from the other sites (although we were the only ones there this night). A nice stone table and fire pit with provided firewood that made an excellent fire.

The camp managers were also super nice and helpful. We had forgotten to buy matches at the store, so they gave us a full box plus some firelighters (excellent stuff that we are curious why it isn’t more popular in the USA). Also, we realized here that Bushlore forgot to fill our 40L water tank in the truck, and they were kind enough to give us a hose to hook up to the water outlet and fill it (and to help us tighten the connection).

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This was only the beginning of the fire!

Ablutions
Since it was our first night on the road, we didn’t have any expectations for how rustic things would be. We were pleasantly surprised at how fancy this one was, with a nice building with fancy fixtures and good hot water.

Activities
They have different 4×4 driving trails throughout the reserve, and one of the managers was nice enough to recommend a route for us. This gave us a very pretty view over the property for sunset.

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Safari Night 23: Red Sands Desert Lodge, near Kuruman

Getting There
If you’ll recall, night 22 was in Keetmanshoop, Namibia. This is quite a long distance away from Kuruman, so this was our longest driving day of the trip. By this point Eric had gotten a little more comfortable with the manual transmission, so he was able to do a few hours of highway driving.

We did also have a border crossing, but luckily again we seemed to be the only ones crossing at the time. Getting into South Africa was especially interesting. All the customs agent asked was about how big the states in the US were. The police officer ran our fingerprints, and told us that we were rejected… but we could clearly see the “No Match” on the machine and his partner was grinning and messing with his cell phone in the background – and the officer eventually admitted he was joking. The person that was supposed to inspect the car inside just wrote down our license plate and asked if she could ride to Johannesburg with us. Everyone there just seemed to be looking for some sort of entertainment!

Campsite
Not as nice as it should have been… When we arrived at Red Sands, they had no record of the booking that Bushlore had made for us there. We called Bushlore and they said we should just pay for it (again) and sort it out back in Joburg. But, there were no actual sites available. There was no other campground nearby, so we weren’t sure what to do. But then a manager stepped in and identified an area with a table that we could us as a site for the night. The site itself didn’t have much beyond the table, but it certainly beat sleeping on the side of the road.

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Ablutions
We were allowed to use the big ablutions block near the actual campsites. Since the camp was full this meant that the ablutions was somewhat crowded. We didn’t take showers, but heard others complaining of limited hot water.

Amenities
They had a nice reception area with free wifi… but only a 50 MB data limit. We burned through this in about 30 minutes :(. There was a nice restaurant as well where the we doing  braai (bbq) buffet, but we had enough food left that we decided to cook anyway. We did visit the bar to relax after the stress of driving and site mixups. Here we had the Castle Milk Stout for the first time, which was a nice change of pace from all the standard lagers we had been drinking.

Safari Night 24: Magalies Sleepy River, Magaliesburg

Getting There
For our last night we decided to go off the beaten path of what others do for their safaris. Instead of making the long drive from Kuruman back to return the truck, we decided to stay in this area just an hour outside of town. So we just looked up the campground on the Internet and found our way to it.

When we arrived, they seemed somewhat surprised to see us. It seems like they are mostly a summer operation and don’t really actually open in the winter. But, they were happy to take our money for the site.

Campsite
There was only one other person in the entire camprgound (a long-term caravaner), so we definitely had our pick of sites. The setting is very pretty, with lots of nice trees and hills surrounding.

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Ablutions
A nice big building with good hot water

Amenities
Looked like there would have been a lot more going on in the summer – pool, hiking, etc. They did have a beer fridge that we purchased a couple of beers from since our box of wine had run out the previous night.

Activities
This was right next door to the Cradle of Humankind area, which was another reason we chose to stop here.

Final Thoughts
It’s hard to really have much of an opinion on our South African safari stops since we didn’t spend much time at any of them. But one common theme was definitely the friendliness and helpfulness of all the employees that we interacted with!

Monthly Recap: Month 1

We have now been on the road for 1 month! It is hard to believe, at times feeling like way more than a month and at times feeling like way less. We plan to do a recap every month to summarize and then reflect.

Countries visited: 5 (Egypt, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia) – though two of those countries were visited for less than a day (12 hour layover in Cairo and Victoria Falls).

*Countries looked at: 2 (We stood across the border and reached our hands into Zambia on our Vic Falls trip, and we looked across the river into Angola at N’kwazi camp in the Caprivi Strip, Namibia)

Beds Slept In: 3 (One of those was our Self-Drive Safari tent which we set up 18 times!!)

Top Moments:

~We both agree that our first top moment was coming across the “Hippo Pool” in Moremi Game Reserve on our way to Khwai campsite. We had been stressing about the deep sandy roads we had been driving, but when we found this secluded spot and climbed into the blind to observe a large pool with many hippos sleeping and feeding, all the stress melted away. We were also thrilled to see the hippos!

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~We were so thrilled that our plan to visit Victoria Falls came together smoothly and that we were taken in by a large family of South Africans during the day.

~We both loved Etosha National Park! One of our favorite times was our afternoon game drive there where we came across a waterhole where we observed several elephants drinking, bathing, and playing. When we arrived, one elephant was in the middle of the pool, up to his head, and he was rolling around, clearly reveling in the water. As we watched, another elephant joined the first and they played with each other, climbing on each other’s backs and entwining trunks. At first we thought that they were mating? But a little later a third, much smaller elephant joined in so we weren’t sure.

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Runners up for Top Moments:

~Despite being exhausted after hours of deep sand driving, we decided to go out for an evening game drive at Savuti camp in Chobe National Park. We were so glad we did. We turned onto a side road which would take us to some rock paintings and we saw a car stopped ahead of us. They were observing a lion sleeping under a tree right next to the road! We were so thrilled to see our very first lion!

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~After a week in the wilds of Botswana staying at wild campsites, driving on deep sandy roads, and meeting hyenas, we were excited to finally make it to Kasane, where we stayed at Chobe Safari Lodge. First we were so happy to have access to internet to be in contact with family and friends, but we also loved their riverside bar. We would sit there with our St. Louis Exports (a Botswana beer) and watch the sunset over the Chobe River. What made this extra special was the elephants feeding in the water on the other side.

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~After two windy, miserable nights leading up to our camp at Sesriem in Namibia and a horrible, windy morning, we finally made it to Dead Vlei (see upcoming post) which was exactly what we had been waiting for the whole trip. Phew.

Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

1. Eric’s watch is broken. The battery died. He is very sad.
2. Eric’s camera is almost broken. There was an unfortunate incident where it fell out of the car in the deep sand. Luckily, it was not on this list as lost which it was very nearly. But since that time, it hasn’t worked quite right.
3. New bar of soap purchased!

Packing Update:

We have not made any changes to our bag contents. We only wish that we had some more warm clothing for this safari portion of the trip.

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read The Covenant by James Michener, Adrenaline by John Bendict, Adrift by Erica Conroy, The Advocate by Teresa Burrell
Eric had read The Stand by Stephan King and Starfish by Peter Watts
Eric and Della have BOTH read Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Born Free by Joy Adamson, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, Morality for Beautiful Girls (the 3rd book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series) by Alexander McCall Smith, and The Kalahari Typing School For Men (the 4th book!) by Alexander McCall Smith. (We read the No. 1 Ladies’ books out loud to each other while we drove across Botswana – very appropriate!)

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