Travel Talk 

Life in Chobe National Park

It's only 65 km from Victoria Falls in Zambia to Chobe National Park in Botswana, a mere one hour drive if all goes well. But you can never be sure how long the trip will take.

We pulled into the tiny town of Kazungula and lined up for the ferry across the Zambezi River. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was dwarfed by the massive rig beside us – a semi- and full-trailer loaded with scrap iron destined for Francistown. Small tourist-vehicles like ours are given priority but the lineup of big rigs was at least a kilometre long and the ferry can take only one truck at a time. The resulting delay can take up to a week. And how do a bunch of bored truck drivers spend their time? Not surprisingly the truck-route through Kazungula is sometimes referred to as HIV alley.

The South African Medical Research Council recently conducted a study of the role that mobile populations, such as truck drivers, play in the spread of HIV throughout Africa. They found that 56 per cent of the drivers they poled were HIV positive and few of them did anything to protect the sex-workers they engaged along their route or their wives and girlfriends back home.

The location of the Kazungula crossing is a legacy of 19 th century African colonialism. In 1884 the colonial powers convened an "international" conference where they sat down with a map of Africa and proceeded to parcel out the "Dark Continent" among themselves. Most of the negotiations involved pen-and-ruler decisions made in the absence of any Africans. As a result present-day Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all converge at Kazungula, and the border between Zambia, and Botswana, the shortest international border in the world, is only 45 metres long. Not only that, but this miniscule common border lies smack in the middle of the Zambizi River, creating a bottleneck that forces all north-south traffic between Botswana and Zambia to funnel through the tiny Kazungula Ferry.

Once across the Zambezi we had clear sailing along secondary roads to our camp in Chobe National Park. Our route took us through sparse mopane forest dotted with termite nests that rise from the dusty red soil like giant sand castles. Many of the trees are missing branches and others are toppled over, their roots still clinging to the earth. In places the forest is reminiscent of WW1 photos of no-mans-land – every tree stripped of its foliage, not by shrapnel but by elephants.

No one knows how many elephants there are in the park but most authorities put their number at well over 50,000. During the dry season, when most of the surrounding countryside is parched, the big pachyderms and a host of lesser animals congregate in the wetlands and marshes of the Chobe River floodplain, making it one of the most exciting game-viewing areas in Africa.

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