Paul’s Africa Travel Journal
Installment 1: Zambia & Botswana Safari
We are off to Southern Africa! We leave Chicago on time and arrive in Washington early, feeling as if the wind is at our backs (which, in fact, it is). Nonetheless, our flight to South Africa is two hours late; its tardiness is never explained. We just feel lucky that we are on a nonstop flight to Johannesburg. I had never traveled on South African Airways (SAA), but it seems to be a laid-back airline, if the safety video is any indication—it stars a computer-generated Mr. Magoo character who seems unfazed by the slightest inconvenience or potentially fatal situation. He laughs when the oxygen falls from the overhead panel above his seat; he looks positively exuberant when he gets the chance to slide down the inflatable slide to safety; and he beams as he assumes the crash position (he has a choice of two different positions). The in-flight magazine contains a level of candor not found in those of U.S. airlines. A message from the CEO indicates that the airline’s “deep and fundamental restructuring” is just about over. He observes that high labor costs are the root cause of SAA’s poor ability to compete. Its downsizing is “well on track; a total of 223 managers will…leave in the coming months.” Finally, if financial objectives are not met by past actions, he says that another 2,232 employees will have to be retrenched. I hope that no one is sacked while we are in the air. The nearly 16-hour flight is pleasantly endless. I am just thrilled to be going!
We arrive in Johannesburg a couple of hours late and check into our hotel for the night, leaving just enough time to fall asleep in our soup bowls before we turn in.
Today, we sleep in (7 a.m.—this is not a trip for people who like to party until the wee hours of the night and then get their beauty sleep until noon). We fly from Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia for the true beginning of our trip. There a driver picks us up and takes us to Sussi and Chuma Lodge, our first bush camp, located on the shores of the Zambezi River. We are still pretty jet-lagged, so we decide we will exert ourselves by drinking gin and tonics on the late afternoon sunset cruise. We board the boat and literally within two minutes we are cruising by the five or six hippopotamuses that live just downriver from the camp. They do their customary snort-angrily-and-sink-into-the-water routine. We never do see more than the nostrils and ears of hundreds of hippos over the next week. Though angry, hippos are also shy and very susceptible to sunburn, so they spend the entire day up to their ears in water and then venture out around 9 p.m. to graze alongside the river. Along the riverbank we also see elephants wallowing in the mud (to clean themselves, of course) and then spraying dirt and sand on themselves to dry off. Later, we’ll find out that this method is, in fact, effective.
That evening we meet our guides Juliet and Gabriel who lead us to see Victoria Falls. So much has been written about this incredible gushing faucet, visible from both Zambia and Zimbabwe (and well worth seeing from both sides).
Today we leave Zambia for Botswana. My wife Ronna and I are both very excited because we are going on our first safari trip. Plus, transferring camps is part of the adventure in adventure travel, as we are about to find out. A driver named Charles picks us up. He is a friendly, diminutive man with a wonderful, broad smile. As we drive to Kasane in Botswana, he tells us about the few large farms that line the road going south. We haven’t seen farms like these in our brief time in Zambia: large irrigation equipment is in place, and corn and wheat is growing. Charles tells us that these farms are being operated by white people from Zimbabwe. As the political situation in Zim (as it’s often abbreviated) worsened and government confiscation of land from white farmers was accomplished, the Zambian government invited these same farmers to its country and gave them very reasonable, long-term leases in exchange for their commitment to farm the land and employ black Zambians. Charles told us that he saw this as a win-win situation for Zambia. This land was not particularly fertile and there were doubts that it would be arable, but the farmers were willing to take the risk, and now the fields were green with vegetation. Zambians had new sources of maize, the staple of their diet, and jobs. Charles’ response to the white farmers was not what we had expected from a black African—our knowledge continues!
We arrive at Border Control on Zambezi River, which we will cross by boat to Botswana. It is utterly chaotic. Trucks line both sides of the road approaching the ferry terminal. Charles tells us that truck drivers can wait up to two weeks to board the ferry for the seven-minute ride to Botswana. We try to get our mini-bus closer to the front of the line, but we’re trapped between a large truck and a passenger car. Women walk by with heavy loads on their heads. We tell Charles that we had packed very lightly (per the instructions of Austin-Lehman) and that we could easily wheel our bags through the line of cars and through immigration. I look at my watch; our plane is leaving from Botswana in one hour. I contemplate an evening sleeping on the road with the truck drivers.
But Charles knows the procedure. He pushes us to the front of a long line of people to get our passports stamped and leads us to a speedboat that will take us across the Zambezi, and within five minutes we are disembarking in Botswana. With the customary efficiency that we have now come to expect, we arrive at the airport with 15 minutes to spare.
Ronna has not been looking forward to this part of the trip. Since she became a mother nearly 27 years ago, she hasn’t liked turbulence or small planes. We expect a four-seat prop plane, but when another 10 people line up behind us to go through security, we realize that it will take more than a four-seater to accommodate us. Sure enough, a 12-seater awaits us; it’s piloted by a South African who is fairly young and very relaxed. He warns us that there will be some turbulence; Ronna frowns at me. But the flight turns out to be very smooth and scenic. The very dry land gives way to green as we approach the Okavango Delta, where we will be staying for the next six days.
We land next to the Tubu Tree Camp Lodge sign, which consists of a couple of two-by-four’s and some small palm fronds. No one’s there; we wonder if our pilot is going to leave us to fend for ourselves. But by the time we have gathered our belongings and de-planed (as they say), our wonderful guide, July (“Yes,” he tells us, “as in the month.”), is there with an open-air Land Rover and a warm smile. He drives off the tarmac and we are in the midst of the Delta. He is full of questions: How many times have we been to Africa before? What animals have we seen so far? Which are our favorites? We explain that we are safari virgins, but that we have already become very attached to elephants and monkeys. On the drive to the camp, we look out the window and find ourselves surrounded by zebras and impalas (recalling the Chevy car named after these elegant animals helps me identify them again later). We are greeted at the camp by the entire staff singing a traditional tribal welcome song.
It is very hot. (Later we find out that October is the hottest month of the year, though in my head I do the math and determine that since it is mid-fall at home, it’s mid-spring here. But it is still the dry season; the cooling rainy season arrives in the next couple of weeks.) Late in the afternoon—like early morning the time when the animals are most likely to be up and moving around—July meets us in the lodge living room and takes us on the first game drive of our lives. It would be an understatement to say that it was thrilling. We pass herds of zebra and impala grazing together in open fields. We see our first baboons and kudu. As we turn the corner, we are caught in “Wild Kingdom,” or is this the real wild kingdom? Two elephants saunter out of the brush, followed by a herd of five giraffes, three of adult age and two six-month olds. I nudge Ronna and ask her if this was not one of the most stunning moments in our travel life. We agree that it is. As I click away on my camera, I think to myself, “Should I turn off my electronic shutter click? July must be very tired of hearing digital sound effects from tourists almost desperately trying to capture these animals on film.” But he totally shares our enchantment. “I could watch giraffes for hours. They are so graceful,” he tells us. He goes on to explain how difficult it is for giraffes to drink water. They must splay out their front legs, stick their butts into the air, lean their massive bodies down, and stick their mouths into the pond. It looks silly to us; more chilling is the fact that it puts them in a very vulnerable position that lions use to their advantage when they attack.
We are thrilled with our first introduction to the African bush. By the end of the afternoon, we can check off only one of the Big Five (we don’t see lions, rhinos, buffalo or leopards), but who cares… we’ll get there.
Our game viewing starts early this morning—at 1:35 a.m! Ronna and I are awakened by loud crashing outside our tent. Is it baboons foraging at the base of the Sausage Tree that abuts our sleeping quarters? I get up, look through the screens and find two elephants trampling the greenery outside the tent in the full moonlight. Ronna joins me and we spend the next 15 minutes spellbound, until the elephants move out of our view and we go back to bed.
At 5:30 a.m., we are up and piling into the Land Rover for the first of our two daily game drives. (I am used to seeing Land Rovers in the suburbs, gingerly crossing such obstructions as train tracks. This is the first time I have experienced them for their intended use.) This morning we see a mother and father ostrich and 20 of their chicks, many more baboons, impalas, zebra, a family of elephants, and (my favorite), giraffes.
When you’re on safari, you get up very early, go on a game drive until 11 a.m., and then have brunch. The next activity doesn’t start until 4 p.m. tea—it’s too hot in the middle of the afternoon for either you or the animals to feel like doing much. Afternoons are for napping, sweating, showering or reading. This afternoon, Ronna and I are joined by about 40 baboons who have come to the camp for some shade and a late lunch. We spend the next hour engrossed in watching their antics: they preen, clown and play. Is it anthropomorphic projection, or do we see a lot of ourselves in them?
Tonight, the staff treats us to a concert of Botswanan music and dance. Though composed of people from many different tribes, the staff have all learned the music and culture of one tribe so that they may perform in unison for guests. It is another example of what we are coming to learn is the openness and respect that Botswanan people show to one another.
This morning is our final game drive with July at Tubu Tree Camp. He has been a marvelous and knowledgeable host, but he thinks we are disappointed that we haven’t yet seen a leopard (though in fact we are pretty content). He is bound and determined to find us one of the big cats before we leave, though they haven’t been seen in the vicinity for the last few days. Per our normal schedule, we are in the Land Rover and on our way at 6:15 a.m. The morning starts very promisingly. We see our normal retinue of zebras and impalas. Soon, we pass seven giraffes grazing together with a big elephant family (also among my favorite animals). We are due back in about an hour to get ready to pack up to leave for our next lodge. July tells us it is all right to leave the road and venture into the bush if you are pursuing one of the Big Five, so we careen into the bush in search of a leopard. We drive for about a half an hour and are sensing July’s disappointment that this will not be the trip that will yield a leopard when all of a sudden he stops, points to a tree in the distance and says calmly “Do you see the leopard lying in the tree?” It is a beautiful animal—lithe and sensual. Sadly for us, the leopard notes our arrival, climbs down the tree and heads off into the thicket. July restarts the Land Rover and begins circling the thicket in hopes that the sleek cat decided to take a walk, which it did. We follow the leopard as it ventures across the open field. It stops to groom itself and allows us to get close to it before the cat gets up and again begins to walk. For 20 minutes we creep alongside it, following it into another field until finally the leopard ambles into the vegetation and disappears. July is very happy, as are we.
It’s time to get on our plane for our next stop on the Okavango Delta—the Baines Camp, about 75 miles away as the crow flies. We arrive at Baines in the early afternoon. We were stunned by the beauty of the location, on the edge of a perpetual lake filled with birds and hippos. Unlike the Delta region around the Tubu Lodge, which becomes parched during the dry season, this area stays wet year-round (that means “feet up” when the Rover crosses streams.) Around here, it is always green and rife with birds of every kind and hue. The camp itself is also beautiful. Named after a famous explorer and artist who traveled through Botswana in the mid-1800’s, the camp’s rooms look out on the water, are filled with local fabrics and woodwork, and themselves bear the names of Baines’ paintings. Their canopy beds are on rollers and can be pushed out onto the rooms’ decks. Tonight, we sleep under the stars, listening to the sounds of nocturnal animals and birds of the Delta.
6 a.m.—we slept in past our usual 5:30 a.m. wakeup call! After a light breakfast of just-baked croissants, homemade granola and hot tea, we board our vehicle for an elephant encounter. After a half-hour drive into the Delta, a trip during which we saw no less than 25 giraffes, we are greeted by Doug and Sandi Groves, founders of the Living With Elephants foundation. In 1988, the Groves saved and adopted three young elephants they named Jabu, Thembi, and Morula who were slated for extinction during culling operations in South Africa. Thembi was something of a delinquent, a rebel taken from her mother. Doug and Sandi have worked for nearly 20 years with their wards. Doug tells us an encyclopedic amount of information about African elephants. We hold their massive trunks in our arms, examine their teeth, and feel the bristles of their long tails. We learn about the kinship between babies, their mothers, and the larger community; how aunts and friends take care of the young while moms go out to feed themselves; and adaptations that have helped to improve their sight and smell. They are bright and responsive animals. We take to them instantly, but Doug constantly reminds us that they are still wild animals that should be treated with extreme caution. We accompany the elephants as they go about their business digging up roots, eating branches, spraying themselves with dirt and sand, and rolling over for a brief demonstration nap.
Each elephant has its own personality. Jabu, the dominant male, is always ready to show off and demonstrate how much he has learned under Doug’s care. He allows us to examine his skin up close and to open his mouth wide to see his tongue. As he smells Thembi’s urine (which contains pheromones that help the male determine when the female is about to ovulate), he gets an instantaneous ‘fifth leg.’ Compared to Morula, Thembi is a younger, more delicate female. She is a bit mischievous and demands more of Doug’s attention to be kept in line. Morula is the senior citizen of the trio and is extremely patient and gentle. When lunchtime rolls around, we eat under the shade of acacia trees while the elephants forage for roots and leaves about 50 feet away.
This evening we take a speedboat ride through the Delta. It is very hot, but the waters of the Delta cool us somewhat. Near sunset, the bayous become filled with birds of every type, color and size. Our boat captain pulls fish after fish from the water. The sunset is breathtaking.
Paul’s Africa Travelogue, Installment 2: Namibia and South Africa, will be available on-line later this summer. Look for it in ALA’s Newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Sign up here >>