Zimbabwe, Botswana, and fun in Namibia

Conditions were perfect for flying; cool and calm. I drove over to the football field a couple of hundred metres away. One of the teachers turned up. He had ridden 5km on a dirt road on his push bike to get there, which would’ve been challenging in the dark.

The Children in the Wilderness liaison officer turned up, plus a 4×4 which I’d hired as I didn’t want to push my truck too much on the dirt roads.

A few of the locals helped to set the balloon up and we inflated. More and more children turned up. By the time it was hot inflated, most of the whole school there, which was impressive seeing it was a holiday.

I gave a number of the kids tethered rides before I took off. They were so happy and excited to experience their first time in the air.

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I could feel the wind increasing a bit, so I decided to take off. The liaison officer came with me.

I’d done quite a bit of study in the days and months leading up to the flight using Google Earth and various forecasts. The area was covered in Acacia trees. If you landed in one of them, the balloon would be ripped to pieces, their thorns are huge. Before I took off I had to make sure the wind was going to the only clear area. Luckily it was. When I got in the air, I was surprised to see how few landing places there were. I had made a Plan B, but even that seemed to be covered in trees. I had to make a quick decision whether to fly on, or land right away. I decided to go on.

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The area was very flat. The expanse of Acacia trees was impressive. We were moving quickly, 45km/h at 1000ft above the ground. I lined up fields where stock was grazed in another village around 10kms up the road, and had a nice 15km/h landing.

People came from the village to see what strange object had just landed. My passenger knew quite a number of the locals, so everyone was very jovial. My retrieve vehicle turned up and quite a number of people helped to pack the balloon and load it.

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Quite a few people were waiting back at Jakalasi School. We loaded the balloon onto my truck and chatted with everyone for a bit before making my way to the Botswana border.

I decided to take the back road to avoid the police. Part of it was tarred, but most of it was dirt, (which was surprisingly well maintained for a good part of it). It took four hours to reach the border. I only encountered one police checkpoint, and the offices there were very chatty and polite. Nothing like what I’d encountered a couple of days before. I told them about the flight and they were keen to see the photos I’d taken.

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The Zimbabwe/Botswana border formalities on both sides were easy and I was through in about an hour. I bought a sim card and changed money just after the border. As I was going back to the truck, I realised I’d left the radiator cap off, (There’s a second filling point for the radiator which is easy to access). Luckily I have a second cap which I got in China when I was having problems there, otherwise I would’ve had some problems.

I set off for the town of Maun, 550kms away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it that day, so I pulled over at a service station to sleep for the night, (my number one camping spot).

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Botswana is very flat and the driving is generally easy. They’d had a bad rainy season last year and the particular road I was on suffered quite badly. I didn’t realise that sections of the road were bad before going on it, so I was surprised the first time when it went from quite a good road, to almost no road with big potholes.

About 200kms out of Maun I realised that my brakes were getting worse and worse. I pulled over and saw leaking brake fluid out of one of the wheels. The road didn’t have much traffic and it was straight and flat, so it wasn’t a big drama. My engine brakes worked well, so I managed with that.

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By the time I got to Maun in the early afternoon, I had almost no brakes, so carefully made my way across town to the Wilderness Safaris Botswana headquarters. One of them took me to a mechanic who they knew. The mechanic was really good and just happened to have the part I needed. They replaced it and got me going. It was a Saturday and they worked a few hours after closing time, which was really good of them. I had a number of other issues, so I said I’d be back on Monday.

I parked at the Wilderness Safaris office that night.

I met up with a Ace the next day. He had got in touch with me through the project’s Facebook page. He was keen on learning how to fly and I said we’d catch up when I got to Botswana. He just happened to live in Maun, which was rather fortunate. He took me to a restaurant by Maun’s old bridge, which was made from dirt and logs. Amazing to think trucks used to have to cross it. He also showed me a couple of other chill spots along the river where the locals spend their Sunday afternoons. It was great to get a local’s perspective, and we had a good chat.

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I was at the mechanic’s at 7.30am on Monday and spent a good part of the day driving around Maun buying parts and getting the truck sorted. I also caught up with the Children in the Wilderness team and we went over the plan for the flight a couple of days later. We also visited the school I’d take off from, Gxhabara Primary School.

I had to refuel the balloon. I thought it would be relatively straightforward, but it wasn’t. For some reason the gas wouldn’t decant into my tanks from the 45kg bottles, even with the correct fuel fittings. A forklift fitting will also fit a balloon tank, so I asked if anyone came to refuel forklift tanks there. One of the guys said that a company nearby had a fitting. We went there, but they couldn’t find it, so went to another place and asked the owner. As it turns out he was a New Zealander and had lived there for 30 years. He started the first major transport company delivering goods into the Okovango Delta, (I’m sure he would be able to tell some good stories because it’s an extremely difficult place to get around).

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He said they had got rid of their forklift and thought he’d sold the hose for scrap just a week earlier. He had a big look around and amazingly found it in some deep, dark corner. Who would’ve thought my saviour would be a New Zealander!
I went back to the gas station, refilled the tanks, (still with some difficulty as the tanks were not the right size and the calculations of the filling machine are all done by weight. We got there in the end though.

Amongst all of that, the flight permission was being sorted out. It was an extremely busy day and I was happy to put my feet up in a motel which Wilderness Safaris had provided. My truck was at the mechanic’s and couldn’t be driven.

I was picked up the next morning by the three Children in the Wilderness staff, and taken to Gxhabara Primary, where I talked to the 1200 kids during assembly.

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Straight after, I went to Wilderness Air to sort out the flight permission, and visited the Air Traffic Control Tower at Maun Airport to let them know about my flight and how a balloon works. Maun Airport is amongst the busiest in Africa as far as movements go. Small planes are constantly going in and out to lodges in the Okovango Delta. Guests can’t get to lodges any other way than by air.

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I also met with one the Civil Aviation Authority at their office and got the final flight approval. It’s always a relief when it finally comes through.

I visited the mechanic’s again and transferred the balloon onto one of Wilderness Safari’s pick-ups, as my truck was still being worked on.

I picked up Ace before day break the next morning and headed to the school. We got the balloon set up with the help of a couple of the teachers. More and more people turned up, including about 500 kids, which was an impressive number considering it was 6.30am and school started at 7.50am.

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I managed to tether a number of kids, much to their delight, and took off at around 7am. The wind can pick up dramatically in that part of the world, so I didn’t want to stay too long at the school for safety reasons. Like Zimbabwe, I had to plan the flight carefully due to the lack of landing spots. I took one of the Wilderness Safaris staff who overseas Children in the Wilderness, Lesh. It was 35km/h at about 500ft. The sunrise was spectacular over the vast flat area. Some of the Acacia trees were flowering and the different colours of the expanse of trees was beautiful. We flew out of Maun and over a couple of villages and farms. I spotted a field to land in and was warning Lesh about a fast landing. I managed to get right down low and the balloon slowed dramatically in the inversion layer. We had a stand-up landing, which was amazing considering just above the trees our speed was still 25km/h.

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The field felt like it was the middle of nowhere as there were trees all around. Two farmers came to greet us, there was no one else around. Lesh walked with the farmer to show Ace and one of the Children in the Wilderness staff, Mary, the way in. We packed the balloon. We’d landed next to an Aardvark burrow. It was huge. A person would be able to go down it.

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We headed back to the Wilderness Safaris office, and then onto another school Children in the Wilderness works with, to speak to the 800 kids there. Some of them had been to watch the balloon in the morning. Many of the kids came to shake my hand after the talk. I was completely mobbed in fact. It was all a bit of a laugh.

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After tidying up some loose ends back at the office, I spent the afternoon taking it easy at the motel. It had been an extremely busy week.

I was picked up the next morning and taken to the airport. Mary had arranged for me to go on a supply flight to a couple of the lodges in the Okovango Delta with Wilderness Air. I flew with a South African pilot who was hoping to fly in South Sudan after Maun, doing supply and passenger flights. They get paid up to US$3500 per flight, but it’s very dangerous.

It was great getting a bird’s eye view of the Delta in the Cessna Caravan. It’s a massive wetland which extends for hundreds of kilometres, and full of wildlife. We landed on the gravel strip and unloaded the week’s supply of food with the help of the lodge staff, then we were off to another strip less than 10mins away. It was amazing to fly at 500ft to the next strip. I could see the elephants, buffalo and giraffes, as well as a huge number of other wildlife.

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There was a good crosswind into the strip, so it was a good workout for the pilot. He did an excellent job to get in. We picked up a passenger, and then headed back to Maun.

All in all it was a fantastic experience.

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I picked up the truck, and then made my way towards the Namibian border. It was easy driving and I made it to the town of Ghanzi, where I parked that night, (next to a service station). Botswana looks more or less the same; flat with low lying trees and shrubs, along with wetlands now and again. It’s sparsely populated, only two million people live in Botswana.

I found a printing shop the next morning. I had to photocopy and scan a few documents for the Namibian flight permission application.
I made it to the border at around noon. Border procedures were straightforward, taking just over an hour to complete.

The flat landscape gave way to hills and mountains. I was impressed by the dramatic features and colours of some of the mountains. It was beautiful to drive around sunset to see the changing colours. I made it to the town of Rehoboth that evening and parked at a service station for the night.

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I was woken before 6am the next morning by the service station staff. All the trucks needed to move on before the manager got there. I headed off, turning off the tarmac and onto the dirt road towards the tiny village of Solitaire. The gravel roads are generally very good in Namibia and you can cruise along at 80km/h for most of the time. There were some corrugated parts though: the road maintenance company had gone bankrupt, so the roads weren’t as good as they should be, (the government bailed them out a few days later).

About 50kms from Solitaire is an amazing Pass. The road drops about 2000ft towards the desert. The pass is only 4kms, but it’s very steep and windy. It was the most impressive scenery I’d seen on my travels in Africa.

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I arrived into Solitaire in the morning and waited for the local balloonist, John. He was arriving from Windhoek later in the day. Solitaire only consists of a service station, a restaurant, 2 lodges and a few houses, but it’s a major tourist stopover point as there’s nothing much else around in the way of services. When people saw my truck, they would come up to me and ask what I was doing. I met some really interesting people. Some Australians were very surprised to see an Australian truck there.

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John came later in the afternoon, bearing news that the military had contacted him asking where the balloon was and why it didn’t have permission to enter the country. They were even threatening to arrest me. The news came as a surprise, the CAA had been very easy to deal with up until then. We think the military had thought I had flown it into the country.

John was very good and it took a couple of days to get everything sorted. I sent the Customs stamp to show it had entered legally overland. In the end the permission was relatively straightforward to get.

In the meantime I got to know everyone in Solitaire. We had a couple of nice dinners, one with a couple from the USA who own most of Solitaire, and the other was a bbq with some of the locals.

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I also visited the largest balloon company in Namibia 100km away, Namib Sky. They have a very impressive and successful operation and it was interesting to see how they ran things. I also caught up with a balloonist friend who worked for them, Sancho, who I knew from flying in Turkey.
Unfortunately the road there is very corrugated and I got a puncture on the way there, and again on the way back. Luckily in both cases it was only discovered when I had arrived at the destination, so it wasn’t a problem to repair the tyre using their workshops. It was the first flat tyre of the whole trip.

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On one of the nights, I was asked to help out with an animal count. Three of us drove around a couple of farms from 9pm-12am counting animals on a specific route. It was collecting data for part of a thesis for a Namibia University student.

I headed back to Windhoek and spent six days in Turkey for a wedding. The flight permission had been granted for when I got back.

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On my arrival back into the country, I was shocked to see that my truck had been ransacked. I parked it at a service station close to the airport and was assured it would be safe as they have 24hr security, as well as cameras. They had taken just about everything, even all my clothes, linen, towels, etc. I couldn’t believe it.

The police came to look, before taking the truck to the police station less than a kilometre away. After filing the report, I realised they had taken my tracker. I got online and found the location where it was, only 500m away! The army were temporarily camped at the police station as they were doing something at the airport, so the police got ten of them, plus ten of their own and we went in three cars to raid the house. A number of guys ran into the fields when we arrived and most of the police/army guys chased them. It was just on dark, so it wasn’t easy.

In the meantime, I went in with a couple of police and searched the house where the signal was coming from. Sure enough we found the tracker and about 25% of my things, (most of it not important, like chargers for example, but I was happy to get two of the most expensive items back).

The suspect was interrogated and told the police where another guy was, so we went and raided two more places not far away, but found nothing. Three guys were arrested in all. Funnily the two main suspects are called Bonny and Claude.
Thank goodness for the Smartbox tracker which was sponsored by the logistics company, DB Schenker. It’s used for tracking freight usually, but it proved invaluable in this case.

The next day was spent getting more evidence. The person had been caught on surveillance and he was identified. He wasn’t caught though and had fled to another town. The police are on the lookout for him.

I saw the exact movements of the guys and it showed they had gone to Windhoek to a few addresses after the robbery, before coming back again. I was quite certain about two houses, which was close to two open markets. I went there by myself to have a look around in the rare case I might find something. It was a very dodgy place and I was very cautious. Unsurprisingly I didn’t find anything. As I was getting into the truck, I was told by a guy there was a problem with my truck. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but for some stupid reason I went and took a quick look as I thought someone might’ve tampered with something while I was away. I made sure the truck was locked.

Sure enough there was nothing and I told him to stop playing games. I climbed back into the truck and looked around. I spotted a guy on the passenger side about to get into the truck. He though I had central locking and would’ve jumped in as soon as I unlocked. I yelled at him, then the next minute another guy reached in and grabbed the keys from the ignition. I jumped out like a flash and jumped on him. He threw the keys away, I grabbed them, got into the truck and got out of there as fast as possible.

Not a nice experience, especially as I knew there was a good chance it was a trap. My heightened senses saved me in the end I think. It was extremely lucky they weren’t armed.

I went across town to a shopping centre to buy clothes and things for the truck which had been stolen.

The plan had to be to fly in Solitaire the day after I got back from Turkey, but I’m now going to have to put it off until after my flying season in Dubai. All my balloon documents, pilot’s licence and logbook, were stolen, so it probably wouldn’t be a good idea if I flew here without those.

I was going to drive to Gaborone and leave my truck there, but I’ll leave it here now, (in a very secure place) and attempt to fly next year.

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I’m staying in a police compound until I fly to Dubai on Wednesday. Not the best way to finish a fantastic few months, but definitely an adventurous one. Life would be boring without such exciting stories I guess.

Zambia and Zimbabwe

Zambia’s Capital, Lusaka, has a different feel to a lot of other big cities I’ve visited in Africa. It was somewhat ordered and didn’t seem so crowded. Suburbs are fairly well defined between the rich and poor. It’s a reasonable size, but doesn’t feel huge. The central city isn’t big at all.

At the same campsite were a couple of Italian guys with their Unimog overland camper. I had only met one other overlander since the start of my trip, so it was great to have a chat about their adventures. They had done the west side of Africa. I was surprised to hear the DRC’s roads were manageable. We exchanged stories and gave advice.

James, a Community Liaison Officer for Children in the Wilderness, (a part of Wilderness Safaris) drove from Livingstone to meet me. We went to Mumbwa together, a town in Central Zambia. The drive was easy, the road was flat and had a good surface. We left my truck in Kasula outside the police station, and went on in James’ vehicle to check out the school where I would fly from a couple of days later, and then on to Mumbwa Air Force Base to speak to the Colonel.
The primary and secondary schools in Myooye are combined, and the two principals were more than happy to have us there. It’s a boarding school with 120 kids. The school has a roll of 1300.
After around 30 minutes, we left for the air force base. The Colonel was free, so we were shown to his office and explained who we were and what we were doing. We had a very interesting chat and he was supportive of what we were doing.

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We headed into Mumbwa for lunch and then on to a school. James was meeting one of their sponsored children. He was taking her to Livingstone the next day to meet her sponsor.

James dropped me back at my truck and I stayed in Kasula by the police station that night. I had a really interesting chat with some of the local guys in the evening. They told me about their challenges. Most were not earning a livable wage, and explained to me what they could potentially do if their salaries were just a bit higher. I was shocked to hear that quite a number of people in the area only earn about US$20-S30 a month, (that’s if they were lucky enough to be in employment). They commented on how much prices had increased in the last couple of years, but the wages hadn’t. They would be happy if they could earn $100 a month, which was enough to live on, plus enough to invest in a small business for example.

Another guy I talked to was a Community Liaison Officer for Child Fund Zambia. He explained how everything worked and how children were selected. His job was to make sure money was being spent in the right way, advise families and keep track of the sponsored children. It sounded like they were doing some really good work.

The local police were very friendly and I parked right outside the door of the station. They said it was the best place. I was parked next to an impounded truck, which had been involved in a fatal collision the day before.

I waited for the flight permission to come through the next morning. When it arrived around midday, I drove the 11kms down the bumpy, dirt road to the School.

I met the ‘Madam’ who was looking after things as the Principal was away. She showed me around the school, before I was shown around the village by the Head Boy and a few of the teachers. I was warmly welcomed by the community and enjoyed seeing what was there. The village is very small, but is lucky enough to have a medical clinic and a few shops. It serves the community in a 10km radius.

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They invited me for dinner, which was a very typical African dish: a kind of maize dough, and beans to go with it.

I spoke to the kids during their prep class after dinner. They do two hours of prep in the evening everyday, powered by a generator as there’s no electricity running to the school.
All 120 boarders fit into one class for prep. They have a healthy respect for teachers and listen attentively. Class sizes generally range from 50-150 students for many schools in Africa.

I encouraged them to follow their dreams and explained my story to them. They asked lots of good questions and it went on for a good 45mins or so.

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I was happy to see a number of strong guys willing to help set up the balloon early the next morning. 150-200 people came to watch the balloon take off. I managed to fly a number of kids on tether before taking off.

Two Captains from the air force base came, and one of them accompanied me on the flight. They were both fighter pilots with quite a bit of experience. I was very lucky to have the support to fly in the area because it is usually out of bounds for all civillian aircraft as it’s restricted airspace belonging to the military.

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The surrounding area was flat with small hills in the distance. We flew over small villages, dry fields, (as it is the dry season) and clumps of bush. It was a beautiful day for flying.

I lined up a village called Senzo, and found a good field to land in. As with my other flights, 200-300 people came from nowhere to have a look. They couldn’t believe what they’re seeing. Even after warning them that I will turn on the burner, they scatter as soon as it’s turned on. They always come back again though, usually laughing.

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The other Captain and one of the teachers came in a car to pick us up. We packed the balloon away and I saw a van had come. I asked if I could put the balloon in the van to take back to Myooye, (for a fee). He said I could, but it didn’t fit. Another guy offered his ox and cart. I was happy to take that, so off he went. He came back about 45mins later with a truck, the same brand as mine. He said his cart had broken, so got the local truck instead. We loaded up the balloon and off we went on the back of the truck down sometimes small and very rough tracks. We transferred the balloon at the school, and after, both one of the Captains and I spoke to the kids.

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After saying our goodbyes, I made my way back to Lusaka and on to Livingstone, 600kms away. The road was perfect, except for a 50km of badly potholed road. I couldn’t work out why they had done nothing to it when the rest of the road was good.

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Outside of the big cities there is not a lot of traffic as car ownership is low, (in most of Africa), so it makes driving easy. The road across to Livingstone was fairly flat and I reached Livingstone a couple of hours after sunset. The fires along the road were impressive during the night. (I assume they were controlled burn-offs).

I was met by James and parked in the Wilderness Safaris compound for the night.

I took it easy the next day, looking around Livingstone and getting the flight permission ready for Zimbabwe. I thought Livingstone was a big tourist town, but it didn’t feel that way. As it turns out, Victoria Falls township on the Zimbabwe side is much more touristy.

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I left for Victoria Falls township early the following day, only 15kms away. I spent a bit more time on the Zambian side than expected because I was supposed to pay a $20 road tax on entry into Zambia, but they had missed it, (as well as all the police who had checked my documents at the checkpoints along the way). I paid the $20 and crossed the impressive Victoria Falls Bridge and completed Zimbabwean Immigration and Customs, which wasn’t too much of a drama.

I headed for the Wilderness Safaris headquarters and parked there for the night. It was nice to meet the guys at Wilderness Air, who have been helping with flight permissions in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. I also met the guys at the regional office for Children in the Wilderness. Everyone has been great to work with.

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I was dropped off at the famous Victoria Falls in the afternoon. What a sight! I can definitely see why they are one of the seven wonders of the natural world. They are so wide, You have to see it to believe it.

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I headed 350km south the next morning to the small village of Jakalasi. The road was much better than expected, even the 50km of dirt road had been recently graded. The only bad thing was the police. I’d been warned about them before coming to Zimbabwe. They will fine you for any small thing. My rear number plate light wasn’t working, so I was fined US$20 for that, (the Zimbabwean economy runs on $US as their own currency is considered to be junk). They tried to fine me for other things along the way, like having no reflectors on the front for example. I refused to pay and played their game. I was told I was under arrest twice at two different check points. You just have to be patient until someone lets you go. It’s not much fun, and certainly does nothing to enhance tourism. I’ve never paid a bribe this whole trip, and don’t intend to either.

I was greeted by one of the teachers at Jakalasi Primary School, and had a look around. The kids had finished for the day, so only a few people were there. The school has a roll of 256 kids and 5 teachers. The village was quiet, so I went for a walk in the afternoon.

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I spoke to the school at their final assembly before two weeks of holiday. They all seemed keen to come to see the balloon a couple of days later.
James had come down from Zambia and met me the next morning. He’d also picked up the local Children in the Wilderness liaison officer from a nearby village. We sorted out the final flight preparations and drove to two villages. The first was the main centre of the region, where we met the police chief and got his support. James also had to fix his exhaust at a local welder’s place. It had broken right off.

The next village was very remote down a narrow, tree-lined, sandy track. We arranged for a vehicle to pick the balloon up from where we land. I need to take care of my truck as I’m in for some a number of repairs in either Botswana or Namibia. The less I do off road, the better. African roads have really taken their toll on the truck, especially the terrible one in Tanzania.

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James headed back to Victoria Falls and I watched some kids play football in the late afternoon.

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Nights here are pitch black as there’s no electricity. The night sky is amazing. Tomorrow I fly.