Self-drive: Nxai Pan, Moremi, Chobe - August 2008

Old Oct 30th, 2008, 02:08 PM
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luangwablondes,
Thanks for advice. We haven't even started yet looking into details of whether self-drive is feasible in Tanzania & Kenya, it was going to be our next question on the forum - has anyone done it? Alternatively Zambia along the Zambezi is looking good ... But I don't want to hi-jack Robin's report, we'll come back to that later!
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 03:20 PM
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Tockoloshe
So, how did you get your campsite bookings for August 2009 (those that just arrived in the mail) - by email, post or telephone? Did you get the dates and camps you wanted? When we booked for August 2008, Xakanaxa was already fully booked, even though we notified Safari Drive of our preferences 11 months before that. We couldn't believe it was already full.

For August 2009 we are considering a self-drive from Arusha through Tanangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti and from there up to Masai Mara, approaching from the west. We may be way too late to get bookings - although all we need is campsites in the parks - and the vehicle of course. We are also considering adding on a side trip (flying!) to Rwanda to see the gorillas.

We're thinking we'll leave a return trip to Botswana for the future and combine it with the Skeleton Coast and Etosha.

Hijack away - the post will get back on track when I post the next bit of the report anyway! So busy researching for the 2009 trip, that I am having difficulty getting this trip report posted!
Robin

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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:01 PM
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We got the parks bookings first and worked the rest of the holiday around that. We had a month to play with so basically telephoned (don’t email, they never answer) Botswana National Parks offices and asked for anything within that period. At this first attempt, 3 months before we left, we initially reserved 2 nights at Ihaha and one night Savuti (they couldn’t offer us anything else). They faxed us a form to complete for camping fees only and we faxed back credit card payment details. The confirmation papers we needed to get into the park arrived a month later by post.

So we built an itinerary going from Kasane to Ihaha to Savuti. Then we investigated the possibilities of camping elsewhere, - we were advised that you could normally get a campsite once inside the park because many people booked then didn’t take up the booking. We weren’t entirely happy leaving that to chance that so checked out the tracks4africa map and saw a ‘community campsite’ at Khwai village. It was very difficult to get info on this, but luangwablondes came to the rescue again:

”You can turn up without a reservation at Kwai Community campsite. To my knowledge, there isn't a way to contact them otherwise. The campsites are basic. Do not bush camp anywhere near the North gate and villages as they aren't going to be nice about it. Its tribal land. They will still expect to be paid wherever you camp. Kwai is not North Gate or in the park so the clock is not clicking on park fees. Depending on the time of year, ellies maybe seen more in that area of the Kwai river then in the park. Get a map capable garmin gps and Tracks4Africa digital maps for it. T4A has Botswana covered quite well, and is autorouteable now- even on tracks. You are not alone in not being able to get reservations. But, you can try to call when you arrive. Stop at the Maun or Kasane office when there and see if they can help. At the gates, once in a while they try to help depending on their mood and you, and radio to see if a campsite has opened.”

So, we considered this a good alternative so that we could at least stay in the area. Then one month before departure we phoned the parks office again and got a further 2 nights at South Gate, the only campsite available, – someone must have cancelled. So we took that and thought that we’d at least have a couple of choices – Khwai or South Gate, and we’d see how things went when we got there.

That was a long-winded way of answering your question: THIS is the reservation which only just arrived by post. When we arrived in Botswana we made sure we had some time in Maun to go to the parks offices and explain the paperwork hadn’t arrived before we left – it was no problem for them to give us the paperwork again. We tried to get more extra nights but they said there was nothing, but to check at the gates when we arrived. They were very helpful.
When we got to our first entrance gate in Moremi (North Gate) we had no problems swapping our reservations at South Gate for different camps - one night at North Gate, one at Xakanaxa and then we even asked to stay an additional night at Xakanaxa and it was no problem. I think it was an advantage to have reservations elsewhere in the park.

In a nutshell, if you want to get the reservations yourself I think you have to spend a bit of time (and money) on phone calls, as the situation could change from one day to the next. It was the same with Namibia Wildlife Resorts, we just kept phoning, I think about 5 times, until they found some dates for us in Etosha (but this was last year before the big renovations).

So yes, it’s easier to use an agent, but we couldn’t find one who would do this for us – there’s no money in it for them. An outfit like Safari Drive will do it as part of a package. Let’s hope that the new reservations system is easier! I wonder if they will increase the camping fees now that they have built the spanking new ablution blocks?

I would love to keep track of your 2009 plans, (i.e. let you do all the legwork!) – we are usually very much last-minute people, we thought planning 3 months in advance for this trip was exaggerated! Would be interested to find out if getting campsites in East Africa is as difficult as Botswana. Anyone done it?

Waiting for the next instalment Robin!

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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:09 PM
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tockoloshe

I've done(self drive) most of East Africa in the past, excluding Rwanda and Burundi, but including Ethiopia-Omo/Mago Park. A lot of it off the beaten track, but all the top spots. Its not all that difficult in East Africa. The qualifier is the camping situation. Compared to Southern AFrica, the campsites are not as 'nice'. Guest houses and hotels and lodges that you find so nicely spaced out in Southern AFrica is a pipe dream.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:18 PM
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luangwablondes,
But is it like Botswana in that you must have a reservation for the campsites available in the parks, or can you just turn up as the fancy takes you? And why aren't the campsites as nice? (I'll ask here since Robin doesn't mind being hi-jacked)
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:23 PM
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Is Hippo stalking me?

Anyway, I was just about to ask the same thing.

luangwablondes,
Do you have any trip reports on these self drives?
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:25 PM
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Canadian Robin,

A great adventure and how interesting you ran into some others on the board.

What ever happened with your rejected cash card?

Suicidal Warthogs--that would be a good band name. I couldn't tell if the warthogs really did often run into the road or you were just anticipating their suicidal behavior based on the signs.

What happened with the honey badger visit?
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:28 PM
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Didn't realise this was a private conversation.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 05:54 PM
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Thanks Tockoloshe! I didn't realize that you meant that it was last years reservations that have just shown up - I thought you were highly organized and already booked for 2009! I am amazed that you managed to get any reservations just 3 months in advance!

You are welcome to let me do the research - I find the planning and researching part of the thrill of the trip! Guess I should have been a travel agent!

Atravelynn
Our Canadian bank cards would not work in Botswana ATMs, although they were fine in SA and Namibia. When I inquired at my bank on our return, they suggested that our pin #s likely caused the problem - in Canada our PIN #s are four digit and the Botswana machines take 3 digit pins apparently. Not sure if this is correct - can anyone confirm this? Fortunately, the cards worked fine in the banks when we gave them to the tellers - and didn't need to use the pin #s - otherwise we would have been in trouble because we had to pay our park fees in cash.

The stupid warthogs did run out in front of us a few times - that is why we took to hugging the centre of the road.

The honey badger was in Ihaha campsite in Chobe - that section of the report yet to be posted.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 06:06 PM
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In Botswana, we continued east along the Trans-Kalahari Highway, although it was now known as the A2 rather than the B6. There was a petrol station at each border post and we debated having lunch in the Engen Station’s picnic site on the Botswana side, but decided instead to carry on. One important difference in the highway on either side of the border was immediately apparent. While again the road was narrow, two-lane, with no lines or shoulders, there was a total absence of fences on the Botswana side. Horses, goats, chickens, sheep, cattle, donkeys and ostriches wandered freely across the highway. The area adjacent to the highway was heavily grazed and barren. Needless to say, we drove slowly and with great caution. We stopped at the first picnic site for lunch but rejected it when we found the site covered in huge quantities of poop. Several kilometres later, we rejected the second site for the same reason. Obviously, the horses, donkeys, goats and cows agreed that these picturesque sites were a good place to stop and eat. At the third picnic site, by now rather hungry, we ate amongst the poop.

We passed many rural villages and saw our first donkey carts, a popular mode of transport in this part of the country we discovered. We also saw many people on horseback. The villages consisted of small groupings of traditional African homes known as “rondavels.” These round huts were small and had no modern amenities like running water or electricity. Most had mud walls, although some were constructed of stone. All had cone-shaped, thatched roofs. There was usually a large kraal nearby. These pens for the cattle or goats were roughly circular and constructed of upright sticks that were bound together with wire. Small groups of women were often sitting outside of the homes, and they would give us a friendly wave as we passed. Chickens wandered freely amongst the homes, mingling with the young children who were plying outside.

Dodging around large herds of goats and many donkeys, the latter which would stubbornly refuse to move off the highway, we continued to Tshootsha, where there was a Shell station and a police checkpoint. The police took one look at us and waved us through. We arrived in Ghanzi, where we were to spend the night, just before 5:00pm. We immediately headed to the Shell station to refuel. We felt a tad out of place in this small, bustling town, which looked remarkably prosperous considering its location in the middle of the nowhere and surrounded as it is by the inhospitable Kalahari Desert. However, it is a convenient overnight stop for weary travelers driving between Windhoek and Maun, the launch site of most Botswana safaris. Our fuel tank again full, we stopped at the Barclays Bank ATM, where Robert lined up with the locals outside the bank to withdraw more pula. I sat in the car and tried as discreetly as possible to take pictures of Robert looking so completely out of place. Our Canadian bank cards were rejected yet again.

Just east of Ghanzi, we turned south and drove for roughly five kilometres along a very rough gravel road to reach Tautona Lodge, where we were assigned to cabin #4. It was an enormous two-bedroom, four-person log and thatch cabin with a large sitting area, kitchen and bathroom. There were mosquitoes in the cabin, which seemed appropriate since this was the first night we were to take Malarone to protect ourselves against malaria, which is prevalent in the Okavango Delta. Tautona Lodge was a tad on the far side of prime, but perfectly acceptable as a place to put our heads for one night. Some people might have been alarmed by the enormous spiders that occupied the cabin, but our year in Australia had cured us of any trace of arachnophobia. Safari Drive had not recommended Tautona Lodge and had suggested Edo’s Camp instead, a Ker and Downey Camp located some 30 minutes north of Ghanzi (www.kerdowney.bw). Edo’s had looked lovely and had offered the opportunity to track white rhino on foot and visit with the San to learn more about their culture and traditional way of like. While tempting, Edo’s required a minimum two-night stay and we were reluctant to give up a night in Moremi, so we chose to stay at Tautona Lodge. I suspect that if there were a next time, we would stop at Edo’s.

While Robert downloaded the pictures from the camera to our laptop, I washed up our picnic lunch dishes and stashed some items in the small fridge. At 7:00pm, we headed to dinner in the main building. We were the only diners for the first fifteen minutes, but we were eventually joined in the massive dining room by two young German women, who had just come from the Moremi Game Reserve. We eavesdropped on their conversation with the waiter and were pleased to learn that they had obviously had a wonderful time in the park. Dinner was far from memorable, with rather cold butternut soup, salty and overcooked lamb chops and mushy vegetables. We tried a St. Louis lager, which is made in a brewery in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and found it a tad watery. Returning to the cabin, we turned on the television and were delighted to find coverage of the Olympics. To our amusement, the channel was based in Angola, so the commentary was in Portuguese. At 9:00pm, we did manage to find some news coverage in English and were relieved to discover that nothing untoward had happened in the world in the past few weeks. We spent a very comfortable night and were surprised, given the lodge’s isolated location in the middle of the desert, that we didn’t hear any animals in the night.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 07:05 PM
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Hi Robin

Didn't PB and I suggest Grassland Safari Lodge, near Ghanzi. Besides the lodge, there is a campsite. This is a place with all kinds of interesting activities. Oh well. www.grasslandlodge.com

Hippo
No trip reports on East Africa. This was when I was doing multiple overland trips, 6 months to 11 months at a time.

Many of the park campsites in Tanzania are primitive. The Kenya campsites are a bit better generally. Reservations were not an issue back then, but you may want them for the Crater, the Serengeti, and for the Masaii Mara. Either way , you pay too much for what you get- To give you an idea, I preferred using the bushes. But its all about the wildlife viewing, so we enjoy.

Do continue Robin. I like to read about the self drive safaris.
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 08:50 PM
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Thanks Robin for a most enjoyable self-drive report! After doing 2 tame self drives (Kruger, Kgalagadi) this type of adventure really interests me!
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 09:08 PM
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Luangwablondes - I don't think you mentioned Grassland - if so, somehow I missed it. I will look it up. Thanks!

Primative campsites are fine with me. Actually, I was surprised at the facilities in Botswana - I hadn't expected to be able to shower every night. I am used to the dump-a-bucket-of-cold water-over-your-head-when-you're-dirty type of camping - no toilets, no showers and running water if you're lucky. The Land Rover had eveything we needed - water, a wash basin, table - we could have parked anywhere and been fine...although, as you will read later in the post, I was mortified at the state of us and our clothes when we climbed on board the houseboat and met our traveling companions for the first time - they looked so clean and we.....well, didn't!!

Matnikstym - we started with the tamer options too - including Kgalagadi and Kruger. We get a little braver with each trip. We actually found Botswana much tamer than we expected - after a few days, we were wondering what all the fuss was about and why we had bothered to update our wills.

I'll try to post more tomorrow. Robin
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 09:22 PM
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Canadian Robin,

Thank You for the report. Much appreciated!!!

What was your overall impression about the Nxai Pan park? I would guess that the game viewing is probably at it's peak during and just after the rains?

How was the scenery and surrounds? Sounds like you had a great trip .....

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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 09:32 PM
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Hari - There is a description of our visit to Nxai Pan coming up in the trip report - still madly writing. But - in a nut shell, we liked Nxai Pan. Some people might not like the lack of game, but we loved the scenery, the skies and the solitude - and we did have a leopard all to ourselves. Nxai Pan part of the report should be up in the next day or two. Robin
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 09:38 PM
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Grassland looks great - if we'd known about it, we likely would have stayed there. I have made a note for future reference. Thanks Luangwablondes!
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Old Oct 30th, 2008, 09:44 PM
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Look forward. Thank You!
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Old Oct 31st, 2008, 06:50 AM
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We rose at 6:00am, packed the car and were at breakfast when the dining room opened at 7:00am. Outside the dining room, we were greeted by a large flock of arrow-marked babblers, which are pretty birds with arrow-like streaks. However, as their name suggests, these birds are best known for their call. It begins with an excitable whirring sound started by one bird, which is then taken up by the rest of the flock until it resembles loud, hysterical giggling. Quite entertaining! After a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, we headed back down the lodge’s rough road. We were dismayed to see several cheetahs and a pack of wild dogs caged in enclosures beside the road, which we had somehow missed on our drive in. The animals had obviously just been fed, as there were more than two dozen African/ white-backed vultures sitting on the fence and nearby trees. While we did appreciate the opportunity to have a good look at these elusive creatures and acquire some great photos of the vultures, it was sad to see the animals living under those circumstances.

Back on the A2 by 7:30am, we headed east towards Maun, our destination for the night. We were to meet a Safari Drive representative at the airport in Maun at noon, which was the reason for our early start. We had been warned that the road between Ghanzi and Maun is fast and narrow and has domestic animals wandering all over it, resulting in an extremely high accident rate. Many vehicles turn over trying to avoid the animals. Safari Drive had told us that we would need to drive slowly and allow four hours to cover the 290km. It sounded much like the highway that we had endured the day previously between the border and Ghanzi. We set out with due caution. It was a lovely sunny morning and it was apparent that it was going to be very hot. We passed a group of twelve women who were cutting the waist-high grass next to the highway with sickles. What back-breaking and hot work! Further along, we passed a group of coverall-clad workers who were walking shoulder to shoulder through the long grass adjacent to the highway. Each carried a long, roughly 2m, stick, which they held out in front of them just above the ground. They might have been a search party looking for evidence, but there was no sign of police anywhere. We wondered if they were using the sticks to part the grass in search of garbage, although we saw no bags of collected garbage. It remains a mystery. We passed many small villages of rondavels and kraals. As promised, the road was littered with cows, horses, donkeys and ostriches. We saw several very large flocks of over one hundred helmeted guineafowl along the highway. They are rather silly birds that look much like a chicken, but with a bright blue neck, a red cap with a yellow crest, and delightful black feathers with white polka dots. Their call is very loud and rather grating, and their unfortunate habit of singing before dawn gives them a poor reputation. They are one of my favourite birds!
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Old Oct 31st, 2008, 06:54 AM
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Just after Kuke, we were stopped at our first veterinary fence. These fences, which are also known as buffalo fences, were constructed in the 1960s to protect cattle from hoof and mouth disease, which is carried by wild buffalo. They also prevent the encroachment of cattle into wildlife areas. After a short exchange of greeting in Setswana, the inspector asked if we had any meat or other products such as fresh milk from cloven hoofed animals (cows, sheep, pigs, deer, goats etc). We assured him that we didn’t. We explained that we were going to shop for our perishable food items in Maun and so did not have any restricted items. I could see the inspector eyeing our large cooler, but it was buried under a pile of stuff and not easily accessible. Instead, he searched our small lunch cooler and our large Tupperware tub, which was packed full of juice and UHT long-life milk. The interrogation complete, I was required to get out of the vehicle, walk through a shallow pan of chemicals and wait for Robert on the far side of the fence. Robert, who was driving, first had to get out of the vehicle and walk through the same pan of chemicals. Then he was instructed to get back in the car while the tires and undercarriage of the Yaris were sprayed with chemicals. Eventually, he was waved through the fence and we carried on. From Kuke to Maun, the scenery was very pretty. We passed several huge and very beautiful African baobab trees, those gnarled giants of Africa that are often referred to as the “upside-down tree” because they look as though they have been planted upside down, with their roots reaching to the sky. We spotted several steenboks, which are small, reddish-brown and white antelope, which large eyes, huge ears and very short tails. Very cute! We spied many hornbills and crowned plovers, attractive, tall birds with long red legs, a red bill and distinguished by a white circle surrounding a black cap.

We arrived in Maun at 11:00am to find a bustling, insanely busy town. Maun is a tourist town and the launch site or finishing point for people heading in or out of the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park. The Botswana government follows a low-volume, high-cost tourism policy, which means that safaris in Botswana are not cheap. The majority of visitors fly into Maun from Johannesburg, change planes and travel by small aircraft with a safari company from one luxurious safari camp to the next. The cost of this privilege in peak season is about US$800 per person per night, not including the air transfers between camps. Self-drivers rent a 4x4 vehicle and utilize the scarce public campsites in the park and reserve - still not cheap by any means and mostly out of the reach of all but international visitors. We like the independence of self-drive, where we are able to determine our own route and set our own pace. While tourists on fly-in safaris see not much more than the Maun airport, self-drivers stay in Maun long enough to stock up on supplies and get organized for their safari. This is what we would be doing for what remained of the day.

The long main street of Maun was chaotic, littered with cars, trucks, safari vehicles, taxis, men in impeccable business attire, mothers with babies on their backs, young adults with cell phones glued to their ears, policemen in snappy uniforms, women carrying all manner of things on their heads, school children in uniform, stray dogs, workers in blue coveralls and even donkeys and goats. Surely this was rush hour! As we watched, a herd of goats brought the traffic on the main street to a halt. Apparently, goats have the right of way in Maun. It was incredibly hectic and noisy. On either side of the narrow street was an eclectic mix of thatched rondavels, big banks, ramshackle huts, modern office buildings, small sheds advertising everything from haircuts to “apolstry” cleaning, large grocery stores and informal stands selling “sweeties” and other small items. It was an odd mix of old and new, rich and poor! The traffic moved at a snail’s pace, providing us with the opportunity to try to take it all in. We pulled into a parking lot just off the main street near the Barclays Bank and made another unsuccessful attempt to withdraw pula from their ATM. While I stayed with the car, Robert walked down the street to the Standard Bank to try their machine. There was much shouting, whistling and honking and, had I not experienced the small towns of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, I might have found it intimidating and a bit overwhelming. As it was, I rather enjoyed watching the frenetic activity around me. I felt very out of place but quite safe, although I was rather relieved when I saw Robert making his way towards me from down the street. I realized how much I must stand out when I saw how out of place Robert looked. However, it didn’t seem to matter. No one hassled us and, in fact, no one paid us the slightest bit of attention. Having failed to get cash from the Standard Bank ATM, Robert decided to try his luck with his MasterCard and a teller at the Barclays Bank. As he headed into Barclays, I suggested to Robert that it was time to name drop and make certain that the teller saw the name on his credit card - not that we’re related in any way to the founders of the bank! Thankfully, he emerged some ten minutes later with the pula we needed. Knowing how much cash Robert now had on him, I was rather glad of the security guard with the alarming-looking weapon, who was guarding the entrance to the bank.
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Old Oct 31st, 2008, 06:56 AM
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From the bank, we drove further north along the main street to the famous and insanely busy Riley’s Garage, where we filled the Yaris prior to returning it to Avis. We maneuvered with some difficulty around trucks, cars, combis and safari vehicles to reach the pumps. We remembered Safari Drive’s advice and ensured that the gas pump was set to zero before the attendant began filling our vehicle. From Riley’s, we headed to the Avis outlet near the airport to return the Yaris and meet the Safari Drive representative. As we neared the airport, we passed several spiffy office buildings, which belonged to safari operators and air charter companies. The airport was a beehive of activity with small planes landing and taking off constantly. As we pulled up to Avis at five minutes past noon, I spotted a large green Land Rover with a roof top tent. The dust cover on the spare was emblazoned with “Safari Drive.” We pulled into a parking spot beside the Land Rover and immediately felt very small in the Yaris. I jumped out of the car, anxious to have a look at what would be our home for the next twelve days. It looked great, and I am certain that I was grinning from ear to ear.
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