About Lesli W.

Yogini, photog, writer, wanderer, wonderer, philosophizer, dog's best friend.

Africa finale: One last safari

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

[Part III: The magic of elephants]

I’ve been home for a week and a half now, and been asked what was your favourite part? more times than I can count. It’s hard to summarize in a photo or one hundred. What I’ll never be able to share adequately is the sheer enormity of Africa, even the enormousness of the very small piece of it I visited for such a short time (the nearly 2000km travelled in 8 days covered just the tip of one country). What words can’t rightly describe is that Africa has its own pulse. It’s in the music of the savannahs, the air, trees, animals and soil. Somehow, this energy works itself into yours and begins to infuse into your veins its vibrant blood orange sunrises, its pomegranate sunsets. The wild sage perfume on the air permeates your senses while rustling bush fuses with birdsong and erases the idiocy of first world problems in the back of your brain.

We’d spent the morning on a safari drive in Chobe National Park…the scores of eles and giraffes, antelopes, baboons and all manner of avian creature dancing on our brains. It’s hard to digest one’s first safari: I resented the jeeps – I’d rather walk these trails even though I know I’d be a lion snack before lunchtime. And I resented the other safari vehicles spoiling the view, disturbing the peace, touristing where I wanted to get deeper into nature. And at the same time, the vantage point was fabulous; as were the loaner cameras with 400mm lenses. The guy who texted our driver to let him know where to find the lion: super-cheesy but worth the shots I was able to get.


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It’s with this tingle of seeing Africa up close still resonating that we enter Zimbabwe. We’ve survived the 2-hour (that-could-easily-have-been-4-without-help) wait to get visas and cross at the Kazungula border post. Finally free to proceed, we work our way down the road through Zambezi National Park, which is cool because again there are no fences, and the elephant, ostrich, giraffe, zebra (etc.) sightings have yet to get old.

Next stop Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Since it is our last day together, my friend and I decide to splurge on the long version of the helicopter tour over the Falls. We’ve been in Zimbabwe for exactly an hour and we’ve set off on foot down to Vic Falls. I won’t comment on political affairs here because I’d like to go back to the country someday; suffice to say that their economy is in freefall, as evidenced by the billion-dollar bills being hawked by trinket-sellers as we walk. This strikes me as a sadly ironic incongruity to the modern shops and cafés (the likes of which we had not seen in a week), as we walk through town to meet the ride to the helipad. Also not lost on me: a billion Zimbabwean dollars will not buy a loaf of bread; in fact, their currency has been entirely demonetised.

African masks for sale at the local market

African masks on offer at the local market

The affable heli pilot gets us situated: I’m in front, as it’s my first-ever helicopter ride; clear windows top to bottom! I can’t wipe the “OMG-this-is-so-much-fun” grin off my face as we do figure-eights over the exquisite (understatement!) Victoria Falls and the adjacent canyons (collectively, Batoka Gorge) on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border. I want to go exploring here (Calvin, are you game? 😏), I think as we fly over the gorge-ous rock walls, then swing over Zambezi National Park for a quickie aerial safari (elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, check!), and we’re back where we started. Wonder: wondrous! Heroin-esque adrenaline pumping, I somehow resist temptation to blow the trip budget and do it again. Afterwards, I’m saddened to hear about a hydroelectric dam project that is slated for this area, threatening endangered species and adventuring in one fell swoop. I’m told that Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River god, is not at all amused.

And just like that, the trip, proper, ends with a group dinner, local beer and a singing/dancing performance by a Zimbabwean performing arts club, the adorable and talented Umkhankaso Wamajaha. They have us dancing and laughing, enjoying this last night.

I’ve said my goodbyes (Bis zum nächsten mal mein freund) and my flight isn’t until the following afternoon, so I’ve decided to go back into Botswana for a full day of land and water safaris at Chobe.

DSC_5388The jeep, a little less cushy; the air, a little crisper; the safari drive begins slowly – animals opting to sleep in just a bit until the sun comes out and releases the chill from the day. We wend our way through many of the same trails we passed a couple of days earlier and I recognise some of the landmarks: a sun-bleached elephant skeleton, a fish eagle nest (with occupants!), the trail that runs along the river, where we see hippos and giraffes and warthogs and a plethora of birds foraging for brekkie in the warming morning.

And as if on cue, the sky brightens and we come across a pair of young elephants playing and eating on a tree close to the trail. As we slow, one of the eles takes interest in our vehicle and with a teenager’s confidence begins walking slowly but surely towards us. Even young, this animal is taller than the jeep, and so I am on eye-level as s/he approaches, stops, and watches me/us in what seems playful amusement, a couple of metres from the vehicle. A warning from our driver: do not move quickly. Do not say anything. We wait, collective breath held, to see what happens next.

And what happens next is Africa magic.

I have no idea how to determine the sex of a young elephant (they say it has something to do with the indentation on the forehead), so whether this is a mating rite or a male dominance display, I do not know. What I do know is that it was magnificent: after intimidating this big thing in the road (us), the smaller ele walks in front of the jeep, then across the road to a small clearing, the larger one (male, I’ve surmised) following. In a dance-cum-duel, the pair pauses time with a soft and slow forehead-to-forehead, trunk twisting ritual, never releasing eye contact during the minutes they remain locked in this posture. It is sensual and sweet, powerful and emotive. I’m certain they’re communicating by touch; elephant telepathy. When they are finished passing the wisdom of ages to each other, they resume their defoliation of the nearest tree. We make our way out of the park, energies transferred to this ardent devotee as well. The safari ends on the highest of notes.

Chobe River, redux.

We board the small boat after lunch, much smaller than that of our river safari some nights before. At first, I lament the size; but once we’re on the river I quickly realise this craft will be able to sneak us so much closer to wildlife in the marshy areas at the island’s fringes.

The wildlife here on the Chobe River does not disappoint. Between this morning and this afternoon, we’ve played safari bingo, with but one space remaining for the win: elephants and giraffes in their lofty elegance; warthogs rooting about as if they’ve lost something precious, or scrumptious, in the mud; hippos looking like small tanks on the riverbank; antelopes of every size and shape: impala, kudu, steenbok, sable, waterbuck… Birds of every class and colour: cormorants and cranes; guinea fowl and kingfishers; oxpeckers and African jacanas cleaning hippos, spoonbills hunting for fish, egrets and storks and fish eagles and the spectacular little lilac breasted roller. Still evading us is the stealthy African lion.

We’re in the marsh watching some cape buffalo at close range. The sun is getting lower in the sky, signaling that we would soon need to turn back towards the dock. I’m wishing this day would not end, because that signals the end of my African safari days as well. As this thought surfaces, we see a group of impalas and some warthogs on the opposite riverbank suddenly take flight, running en masse away… We’ve all seen some Nat Geo special or another and know to look towards what they are running from. We see nothing until we’re just about to pull away; farther down the riverbank, two logs take shape in the form of young (and, as the guide explains, inexperienced) lionesses.

One stays put. The other begins a casual-cat stroll towards where the impalas were. She slinks, then she waits. And as she waits, a small group of sable antelope appear (also where the impalas were) and apparently either don’t care or don’t notice the not-small cat watching them. Step by step, she creeps closer (and closer to us, which is spellbinding from our vantage point). As if mocking her gorgeous but clearly not skillful hunt, the antelopes slowly migrate closer to the bush until they are out of reach.

With a very housecat “I meant for that to happen” air, she does a graceful about-face, stretches, and checks in with an “are you in or are you out?” look to her partner before pointing herself towards the buffalo (again, even closer to us!). Cat #2 is not impressed, nor does she move. Kitten #1 is uninspired after all this posturing, assesses the cape buffalo situation (each out-weighs this cat by at least 300%) and decides to take a siesta in the long grass to further consider her options.

This cat-and-not-quite-mouse game could go on for the better part of the evening, so we leave the marsh; we’ve already overshot our departure time by an hour and we’ve got to be back to the Zimbabwe border by 6 to make it through Zambezi National Park before dark. If the thought of hitting a deer crossing the road back home is frightening, consider the prospect of hitting an elephant or wildebeest; except in an emergency, the locals do not drive this road at night (a group of foreigners waiting on a lion does not constitute an emergency).

It’s with this on-the-edge, semi-fulfilled, almost-ecstatic-but-still-really-fantastic feeling we return via the Namibia side of the river, boarding the safari vehicles that will take us back to the border crossing (multiple-entry visas in hand, this crossing is significantly less traumatic than the first) and through the national park as the sky is on the brink of sunset.

I sleep this last night feeling full and sated, from both dinner and sensory overload from the spectacular day; not looking forward to the hours and hours I’ve got ahead of me, bouncing from Vic Falls to Joburg to Doha and finally to Boston, bedraggled, a full day later.

It’s a little bit absurd, looking back at this trip and trying to explain the experiences without sounding like a braggart or like I’m blowing it out of proportion, when in truth I don’t feel worthy of this place. Like India in impact, Botswana was dust wrapped in colours and shapes and smells, its nature is something I’ll never be able to describe without visual aids. There is no light where I’m from that rivals sunset on the savannah. There is nothing wild I’ll see back home that compares to the sight of a mother elephant shuttling her baby across the river while he sprays water in playful objection.


I’m drawn to places that make me humble, that make me feel the enormity of the natural world, that demonstrate the fragility and the impermanence of being, that make me realise my mere speck-ness in the Universe…

How do you thank a place for adding texture to your existence?

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

[Part III: The magic of elephants]

Africa Part III: The magic of elephants

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior.” –Graydon Carter

The upside of being on a tour is that they fit as much as they can into your limited days. They also, if you’re lucky, find unique accommodation. Case in point, the bush huts in Ghanzi…and tonight’s stay at Elephant Sands, a rustic-ish bush camp set around a non-fenced watering hole. Botswana, I’m realising, is something of a massive game park. Fences, merely a suggestion. Our room here is a large tent on a raised platform with a birds-eye view of the watering hole and the lodge. The warnings abound as we check in: Do not go down to the watering hole. Do not walk into the bush. Do not walk between the tents (and/or into the bush). Stay on the path, bring a flashlight, do not lock your door (in case someone is running from something with sharp teeth and needs to enter quickly), do not feed the animals (this last one I made up, but I think it goes without saying).

We arrive and there are no fewer than 8 elephants of all sizes at the watering hole. While it seems they are used to people (they’re busy ignoring us, that is), these are still wild animals and we are in their domain. Mutual respect is granted. So it appears this evening, since a broken door on the bus cost us a couple of hours this morning and we’ve arrived too late for the afternoon safari, the game drive has come to us instead of the other way around!

As cool as this is (I can think of no better adjective, sitting here mere metres away from a 3-metre tall beast), it feels somewhat canned. I’ve got no complaints, tho; they are magical to watch. As enormous as these eles are, they are enchantingly silent at the same time. Their feet are padded and look like suede (I see this in close proximity as one of the large bulls near me shuffles his feet). Large looming shadows appear from the bush in the periphery, silently – but heavily – these morph into massive and simultaneously graceful beings, small buildings with proboscis(es?), brimming with personality. Coming and going, socialising at the watering hole, as if nobody is watching. And we do watch, until the African sun drops below the horizon and the stars blaze in the sky. Unfazed, the eles frolic until our bedtime, then one by one return to the bush to do whatever it is they do at night (scientists say they only sleep 2 or 4 hours a day), leaving it to our imaginations what might come overnight.

Alas, all is mostly quiet, save for some wandering antelope and rustling in the bush behind the tent. I wake early and catch the sunrise over the quiet watering hole, hoping to catch sight of an early morning critter or two. Just some hornbills, African starlings and some wading birds make appearances before we’re off to where the animal adventure really begins: a river safari on the Chobe River.


I’ve travelled to some extraordinary places in my life, each special one leaving a bit of itself inside me; and, as I leave, I shed a bit of my old self, like dead skin or bits not-needed anymore, to make room for the new. In no particular order: India. Belize. Sardinia. Saba. Istanbul. Nantucket…

And so, after that first real bush walk, after a glimpse of wild but not-so-wild elephants up close, I realise Botswana has made its way to this list even before I spy my first truly wild elephant. I’m not at all surprised.


The thing you hear about Africa quite often is “the light is amazing.” What they don’t tell you is that “amazing” is an understatement. It’s sparsely-populated here; that, combined with these vast open spaces creates for fantastic-seeming air quality (at least this time of year). The sub-equatorial light is spellbinding as it streams through these clear skies at dusk, pinks and golds against the savannah.

cropped-d72_5247.jpgThis is the point at which the photos – and through them, the animals – begin to do much of the talking, speaking thousands and thousands of words while mostly what is heard is birdsong. In Chobe National Park, late afternoon is the time the elephants migrate towards the river to socialize and play and bathe and eat – in droves. The park contains an estimated 50,000 elephants, possibly the largest concentration of these magical beasts in the world. So, at dusk this day, we see easily 150 elephants on little Sedudu Island, once a hotly-contested piece of marshy land that sits between Botswana and Namibia in the Chobe River, annexed to Chobe National Park after an International Tribunal ruling in The Hague in 1999 (the Botswana flag now proudly flies here). Just downriver from us, four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia) meet as the river continues towards the Zimbabwe/Zambia border, spilling into the Zambezi River and then over Victoria Falls. It is said that fighting in this part of Namibia kept the elephants on the Botswana side of the river, contributing to the increase in their numbers in Chobe. Now that the fighting has subsided, the elephants are once again roaming into Namibian territory. Botswana has some of the strictest anti-poaching regulations (shoot first, ask questions later) in Africa. Let’s hope the eles fare as well across the border.

20170727_171917My inner elephant is doing backflips as outer-me marvels at the monstrous bulls swishing reeds back and forth to remove sand and stones that grind down their aging teeth. With a child-like grin, I’m watching the elephant families playing and grazing in this safe haven. A matron escorts a pair of calves across the river and then goes back to wait for her mate, making sure the rest of the family crosses in safety. Adolescents frolic in the water, spraying and dunking each other, play-fighting in the shallows. The boat pauses as the rest of the family crosses.

Elephants aside (though I could stay here watching them all day), we observe another of the Big Five, the African cape buffalo, with its silly swooping horns that look a bit like something out of the Flintstones. We see more prehistoric-looking creatures: Nile crocodiles basking in the afternoon sun; hippos frolicking as gracefully as, say, a refrigerator; we even see a chance monitor lizard hunting for its dinner. Along with the hippo warnings, we are cautioned about swimming in these waters: there are thousands of crocs here and even Aquaman has a next-to-zero chance of out-swimming one.

As I internally pinch myself to make sure this is indeed real, I am truly awe-struck at the vibrancy of this place; of the quantity and the quality of wildlife; of the sheer pristine beauty of this scene, the vivid African sun setting over the Chobe River. We haven’t even been inside Chobe National Park yet.

Ancient legend (and Terry Pratchett) tells of the World Elephant, the mighty mythical beast(s) that support the world while riding the back of the World Turtle (hence the saying, “it’s turtles all the way down”)… there is little wonder how the early sages were awe-struck upon seeing these magical animals.

[Stay tuned for the finale: this girl’s first safari, one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, and one last day of epic animal encounters.]

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

Africa, Part II: Into the Okavango

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]

When I was little, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d say a Nat Geo photojournalist, the photo bug gifted to me by my father. It’s certainly the reason I started a travel blog: to release the words in my head about the places I’ve been, together with the photos, to complete the story (much easier in digital). My early-on adventures were in 35mm and pencil-on-paper. Midnight jungle hikes and diving the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef in Belize, Mary’s Place in Roatan; the Arizona desert, the mind-blowing ruins at Tikal…

But here I am, 12000km from home, packing a bag to spend the night camping in the Okavango Delta. Yesterday, we took a low-altitude flight over the Delta, mesmerised by the maze of animal tracks in the dry desert grass that map the routes to the best watering holes. The herds of toy animals below ironically reminded me of a Nat Geo special, and I only know it was real because I have the pictures on my camera, telling a thousand words for every giraffe, elephant, zebra, impala, hippo and water buffalo seen from above. Even today, writing about the experience, it seems like a vivid dream (inclusive of massive turbulence!). Neither words nor pictures can do justice to the enormity that is the Okavango Delta. Roughly 20,000 square kilometers in size, the Delta stretches from the northern border of Botswana and its fingers fan out towards the Kalahari Desert. A multitude of endangered species call this place home: cheetah, black rhino, African wild dog, lions and a multitude of birds. If we have the chance to see even one of these beasts on the course of our trip, it will check multiple boxes in my life’s wish list.

Let it be known that I am an elephant freak. Peut-être the reason I gravitate towards Ganesha, I don’t know. And before this trip, I had never seen an ele outside of captivity. I had it in my head that there would be a moment where my heart exploded upon seeing my first elephant in Africa. It just so happens that the first wild elephant I saw in Africa was out a bus window, driving down the Cross-Kalahari Highway at 70km/hr (little did I know then that the once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience was to come on my last full day here).

Into the Delta.

Safari vehicles shuttle us to the launching point where a flurry of activity is readying mokoros (dug-out, flat-bottomed canoes – once wood, now made of fiberglass) to ferry us from the fingertips of the Delta to our campsite some kilometers farther in. Our poler, Papillon, expertly maneuvers us through the hippo highways and back roads of the Okavango, through the Delta reeds that mask the myriad animals watching our parade of canoes. It feels like we’re floating, which we are of course, but it feels lighter and quieter than a traditional canoe or kayak somehow. The water is so still, it’s like a mirror magically guiding our craft along ancient paths. At the end of one such path, we pause by a larger pool to watch a hippo family playing and cautiously checking us out – popping in and out of the water, one by one, with a unique “spluff” that sounds not unlike a whale spouting. Papillon, chatting along the way giving us names of birds and history of this magical place. The polers have an organised association here, shuttling tourists around the Delta. The government of Botswana issues exams for different level of naturalist; each of our polers seem to possess several levels of knowledge of the flora, fauna and ecology of this region.

Hippos weigh more than a small car, can apparently walk up to 1km underwater (they don’t swim) and are considered the most territorial of animals in the Delta, killing more humans than any other animal here, not for a quick snack but in defense of their domain. We’re wary but excited to see them snarfle-surfacing nearby. I keep thinking it feels a bit like being inside a Nat Geo safari special, except the air smells like a sweet mixture of camp smoke and sagebrush. Still the silky texture of the air prevails. It is flat for kilometers and miles; only reeds distinguish wet from dry land, and even that depends on the season.

We arrive at camp after about an hour and a half through the wetlands, eat lunch and venture out for a quickie bush walk with one of the guides. This introduces us to the expanse of the Delta on eye-level. It’s nearly unfathomable, its size, and the volume of life this place contains; again, it feels almost surreal. As we walk, the delta grasses appear as if they are waiting out the mid-day heat for the afternoon traffic to resume. I learn that the pervasive desert sage is an insect repellent, though to my surprise and relief (malaria pills in tow), I’ve seen very few mosquitoes. One thing is certain: I will never again smell sage and not instantly be teleported to the Okavango.

As we saw from the air yesterday, there is a complicated matrix of animal trails, crisscrossing their way across the grasslands. From the ground, the trampled, well-used paths reveal myriad tracks and we see elephant and lion footprints; also antelope and zebra scat (we know they know we know they’re here). Two maribou storks (a humongous Sub-Saharan flying beast, listed in the Ugly Five according to our guide) circle in the sky above; desert grass waves in the slight breeze. Our eyes and ears are pealed for any sign of the Big Five before we head back to camp to rest before our sunset bush walk.

It’s day’s end and animals* are on the move from their mid-day siesta to grazing or hunting grounds. We’re walking farther into the Delta and we’ve gone by mokoro across to another island to see what we can spot. It’s a prickly anticipatory feeling, knowing you could be prey, depending on who or what you come across here. This feels different from any other hike I’ve been on – all senses alert for shifts in wind, rustling grasses, animal behaviour, signs of tracks or fresh poo.

There are reedbok antelope bounding, tigger-like through the tall grass. Cats are elusive this evening, but we see a dazzle** of zebra grazing in a field not 100 metres away. They notice us, but continue alternately grazing and keeping watch, as is their nature. It is incredible to observe them interpreting their continuously-changing surroundings. They all alert to some unseen hazard in the trees nearby, moving en masse just slightly Eastward before relaxing and resuming their meal (enhancing our photo-op in the process).

We race the sun on our way back to camp, the African sky is fire against the wheat-coloured plains. We see more zebra, impala, birds, and as I’m disembarking the mokoro, a tiny elephant shrew (a member of the lesser-known Little Five) bounces into view at my feet, doing its best kanga impression.

The sun sets as we arrive back at camp, and while we didn’t see an elephant this time out, I know this walk is a mere appetizer for what we’re to see in the days ahead. Already I want to spend an extra week here in this spot (despite the warnings about straying too far from camp and a strong suggestion on checking the bush for the glow of eyes before going to the toilet).

The magic of the savannah overshadows the night’s activities only slightly: we’re eating grilled food around an open fire in the Okavango Delta, listening to our polers sing songs from this part of the world. Laughter abounds. I’m lucky to be here, I think, and haven’t even seen an elephant up close yet.

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari] Stay tuned for Part III: the magic of elephants


*Animals of the Okavango

**Animal collective nouns

Kalahari before the safari

The terrestrial part of the trip starts unexpectedly badly, with a raging migraine and a feeling of “why did I sign up for a tour?” as we meet the others with whom we’ll share a bus and myriad adventures for the next 8 days. I’m in Windhoek, Namibia, the starting point of this bus-and-bush trip across Botswana, travelling with a friend I met on my trip to India. The ghastly first dinner helps the migraine not at all; I hate vomiting in unfamiliar surrounds. But with optimistic hats on, we are determined to make the most of the days and experiences ahead.

 

Doha.

To get to Africa, I’ve first bounced for 9 hours on one continent – Asia – where a long layover afforded me a state-sponsored city tour of the weird city of Doha, an uber-riche oasis in the Arabian desert. Surrounded on 3 sides by the Persian Gulf and one by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, they say, is the richest country in the world. Oil, oil and more oil… Elaborate is the first word that comes to mind of the airport here, as the Adhan (call to prayer) resonates throughout the cavernous modern space. One stop on the city tour is the man-made gated island, The Pearl (called this because oil displaced pearl diving for its #1 industry), for Qatari residents only – the workers are accommodated in single-room worker housing and paid $300/month for labour on the massive amount of construction going on here, least of which is FIFA World Cup 2022. The Pearl, in obnoxious contrast, boasts exquisite waterfront housing and a mini-mall replete with Ferrari and Rolls Royce shops, flanked by Hermès, Gucci and other designer boutiques. Regrettably, we only have 10 minutes at this stop so I won’t even have time to choose the colour of my Ferrari. We don’t get a tour of the worker residences, but we are allowed an hour or so to wander the Souq Wakif, their enormous traditional market where I wend my way to the spice section, past all manner of vendors. A small treat in advance of my 10-hour flight to Windhoek.

 

Welcome to Namibia.

Having spent many long flights beside over- and under-perfumed humans, large and small, awkward and fidgety, I was delighted to be seated next to a charming and adorable bush-pilot-turned-private-jet-captain, returning home after a 3-week globetrotting stint. We struck up conversation immediately; books and travel and world views. Pas mal, as they say.

Still chatting away, we step off the plane and into the silky Namibian air. It has a texture I can’t place; clean and pure as if it has magical properties. The sky is a cloudless, crystalline blue. The temperature, a perfect 20°C; the morning chill lingering for now.

My seat-mate issues my first “Welcome to Namibia.” This is the 2nd stranger from a plane I’ve sat next to (the first was a lovely woman from Joburg on the Boston-to-Doha leg) who’s insisted on connecting on WhatsApp just in case I need help while in their homeland. I think: we don’t do that enough where I’m from. One of the amazing things about solo travel is the ability to remove walls and preconceptions…there is an immediacy about the interactions you have, where the minutiae around what you do for a living and other small talk has no place because the connection and the conversation is time-blocked. There is simply no room for fluff.

20170723_080535-1Now entering Botswana.

On most road trips, one expects to see a smattering (and, alas, the splattering) of animals along the sides of the highway; where I’m from it’s deer or red-tailed hawks or woodchucks. But we’re on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, and as such, in the first 20km of open road we begin to see a troop* of baboons and their infants**. We pass a sounder* of warthogs and their piglets**, some round ground birds (guinea fowl) that I later find out are nicknamed Chobe Chicken; an ostrich, yellow-billed hornbills, iridescent and shiny-breasted starlings…and this is just the small stuff. Note to self, as I gaze out at the Kalahari savannah rolling by the window: this moment is time-blocked as well. Fluff has no place here in the desert.

We cross the border into Botswana with little ado, and each of us receives a condom from the immigration folks; a sobering reminder of the fact that 25% of the adult population here has HIV/AIDS. 18 of us on the bus, and we let that sink in: our collective Western privilege acknowledged.

As we drive towards the bush huts in which we’ll sleep that evening, we begin to see more animals (in no particular order): zebras, giraffes, goats, sable, impala, more ostrich, oryx, dik dik (a very tiny antelope), kudu, lilac breasted roller (a gorgeous little bird), and – at last – an elephant (or twenty). We are not in Kansas anymore, although the terrain is just as flat. We’ve already driven something like 5 hours and I’m just starting to get my head around how big the Kalahari, and Africa, is.

The road to our bush camp is straight and flat; vast swaths of scrub brush as far as the eye can see. We’re on the upper edge of the Kalahari proper, tho the animals are not much aware of boundaries. The low scrub brush is interspersed with dusty green desert trees and random baobabs, their roots seeking moisture in the red earth carpeted in desert grass.

More stats: 84% of Botswana is covered in sand; and the Kalahari Desert comprises about 70% of its land. We’re entering a dry, sparsely-populated area (most of the population lives in or near the capital in the southern part of the country), home to the largest elephant population on the planet. The preview elephants we’ve seen so far have whet my appetite (not literally) for more.

 

Bushmen without a bush.

Our lodging for the night is a cache of bush huts on a tract of the Kalahari. Botswana residents are entitled to land from the government, but with it, they are required to do something of use: tourism, farming, etc., so we see roaming goats, cows, horses along the highway; not unlike India, I think, anything might cross the road at any time.

The camp is a swath of lump-looking pods with doors, each containing a couple of cots. Quaint, pseudo-authentic, rustic. Despite the 25° day, it will be 8 or 9° tonight, but at least we’ll have walls between us and the desert…and it’s too cold for snakes.

Our hosts have set up this mock bush camp to teach tourists about the ways of the bush. It’s sad, I think, that the San People (bushmen) need to put on a tourist show to keep their traditions alive; government regulations have all but made their lifestyle of hunting and gathering obsolete. Their language and way of life will die out within a generation or two. Indigenous people were pushed out of South Africa and more fertile lands towards the arid and impossible Kalahari, and so it is like a slow starvation made possible by Western colonization and modernization.

 

The first activity is a bush walk. It’s more a staged demonstration by a few San People, who have changed into traditional garb and driven in for the show. I feel a bit of a voyeur, watching them practice their gathering skills (hunting is prohibited here). The film The Gods Must Be Crazy was made almost 40 years ago and perhaps foreshadowed their brush with modern society. And as we walk with them along the quiet, dry path, I can’t help but wonder if the land was once teeming with animals. We’re encouraged to ask questions and take photos as a means of remembrance; historical preservation: spread the word lest we be forgotten. I oblige because the images are stunning, but I feel simultaneously patron and rich western foreigner taking advantage of the locals. Isn’t this what got them here in the first place? The day closes out with dinner and more of the San show: traditional singing and dancing by the fire.

Dawn.

As the new day greets us with its 5° chill, I dress quickly in the pitch blackness of a Kalahari morning. The African sun rises without fanfare as if it knows it’s in high demand this day. As quickly as the sun pops over the horizon, we’re on the road just after brekkie to see the Okavango Delta. Visions of Nat Geo specials dance in my head….

[Part II: Into the Okavango!]  [Part III: The magic of elephants]


*The full list of animal collective nouns

**The full list of animal baby names

Countering my own Earth Day rant

It’s Earth Day, 2017. This morning, I felt like writing a rant about the things we’ve done to fuck up this beloved planet of ours, and to complain about the egomaniacal, thing-filled greed that fuels the raping and pillaging of Planet Earth and the butchering of its wild animals, the slow execution of our reef systems, and the rampant willful ignorance that paralyses a government from acting to save ourselves from ourselves.

This will continue for as long as corporations keep the heroin needle of constant consumption in our arms, necessitating individually wrapped everything; ubiquitous use of convenient, single-use plastic bottles and wrappers and bags and cups; easy, convenient, processed consumables, disguised as food, laced with deforesting palm oil; absurdly low gas prices, “disposable” electronics, a government-subsidized diabetes epidemic, funded in part by a corn syrup industry and a PAC-funded government denial of the merits of real food. Corporate pockets will get deeper in direct correlation with the width of our waistlines; they will grow richer in inverse proportion to the level of natural resources remaining; they will get more resolute and change their doublespeak as our majestic wildlife, our tropical fauna, dwindles and fades into mere memory… paradise paved to put up a parking lot (or office park or housing tract), as it were; they will point fingers as coral reefs bleach, then die, and watch as the base of our planet’s ecosystem fails in an ignorant dismissal of science at all costs.

I wanted to rant about all this, but then got sidetracked by a quest for beauty this afternoon. A self-posed question of what I love about Planet Earth. What have I seen that has taken my breath away? If the only will or want I can control is my own: what can I share that might change someone else’s?

So on this Earth Day, I share some photos of the things on Planet Earth I’ve seen in my near half-century, as ocean temperatures rise and carbon levels increase and sugar-induced disease becomes endemic; these are the things that give me pause every day to stop and appreciate the Wonder that is inherent in this magnificent ball of rock that we inhabit, for as long as she will have us.

Happy Earth Day 2017.

Zanzibar Part III: Istanbul (?)

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Two days before I’m scheduled to depart for Africa, Turkish Airlines changes my return ticket so that instead of another couple of days in Zanzibar, I’ve got a 2-day layover in Istanbul. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as I had envisioned… Stone Town is hot and dusty, and our one whirlwind day is plenty.

It also turns out that getting a Turkish e-Visa and finding a lovely little B&B just blocks from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while sitting in my kitchen some 5000 miles away was also a piece of cake. So like that, I had plans to spend a couple of days in a city I thought I’d never get to see during these convoluted political times.

I had left Boston a week earlier, feeling angry, disheartened, rebellious, frustrated, embarrassed and altogether disapproving of the US current administration. Wanderlust raging and fernweh in high gear, I felt like an alien amongst my fellow Americans. I needed to get OUT. The stream of propaganda emanating from my country’s gold house makes me sick to my stomach; the deeper their hole of hate and other-izing is dug, the more my stomach reels as it did in the meat market in Stone Town.

I went to Zanzibar, American passport in hand, for a diving holiday with a dear European friend. We were in the far-flung reaches of a place not many tourists go, let alone even know exists. Aside from a very small handful of other travellers and assorted Peace Corps or aid workers, there were no other white people visiting there; Pemba is roughly 99% Muslim, as is Istanbul in theory. At Ataturk Airport, I’m mulling the fact that it’s almost a relief to have been surrounded by others for whom aggressive white (read: Christian, American, ignorant…) nationalism is just not a Thing at present.

And so I arrive in Istanbul, sad at having just said goodbye to my co-adventurer, slightly anxious about this new stamp in my passport, and more than slightly squeamish about my nationality and what it represents in a country mine has so recently postured to hate. Paradoxically, my complexion belies my country of origin and from the first interactions I’m asked, “Argentina? France? Spain?” I figure that some of my rusty Español and a strategically-asserted “Canada” here and there will be invaluable.


Sultanahmet. 

This mind-chatter is still occupying space in my head as I step out of the taxi and into the adorable Hotel Empress Zoe B&B. The neighbourhood is called Sultanahmet, which contains both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, sights I’ve been told are not-to-be-missed here. It is also the site of 2015 and 2016 suicide bombings. I’ve been warned of this as well. Of the school that lightning doesn’t usually strike in the same place (erm, 3 times), I’m slightly mollified by the presence of police with obvious machine guns and armoured vehicles at nearly every open space here. My room is fantastic. The greeting I receive by Layla is warm and welcoming. She arms me with a map and we orchestrate a sights-to-be-seen plan for my next 48 hours. The greeting I receive from the resident cats is equally as inviting.

Once I’m settled, the intention is to get the lay of the land and find some dinner. The first hot shower in a week is medicine for the chilly, damp gray air to which I’ve travelled; stark contrast to the prior week’s steamy East African days. I rebound and set off to explore.

Istanbul not Constantinople.

2017-03-18 08.31.52-1

Bosphorous Bridge from the air, connecting Europe and Asia

Called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and then Istanbul, this city is a perfect confluence of east-meeting-west. Quite literally, since Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, and has been a key trade route for millennia, connecting Black and Aegean Seas, commingling humans, spices, slaves and customs from ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine empires before early Christian v. Muslim conflict delivered rule to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.

Tourism is sparse. I’ve arrived to this normally teeming-with-tourists city in both a political maelstrom and the height of the low season. Glad that there are no lines to contend with at the major sights, I’m also a target for the desperate carpet-sellers that pop from nowhere to begin innocent chatter. “Hello, Argentina?” “Parlez-vous Français?” “Hablas español?” “Where are you from?” Learning from my first mistake, where a conversation with a friendly local turned into an introduction to his other “new friends from South America” and an invitation to the nearby rug shoppe. I declined the kind offer and deflect future propositions like these – of which there are many – with a firm “no,” as the promise “I’ll come by later” is clearly too naïve.

My first impression is that Istanbul is clean. People are chattering and smiling. Most, if not all, women are wearing a hijab. Men are dressed smartly, in tapered-leg suits. Even the street dogs are tagged and friendly-seeming. Like in India, some men hold hands in companionship. New York City seems more stressed-out to me than this place of recent turmoil and conflict.

It’s evening and the sun is preparing to set; we are between late-afternoon and evening adhans (calls to prayer), and I’ve set off to explore the plaza that sits between the Sultanahmet Mosque (dubbed ‘Blue Mosque’ for its elaborate inlaid tilework) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), which mesmerises on first sight. Once a Greek Orthodox church and the world’s largest cathedral, Hagia Sophia’s pinkish stucco is transformed to a glowing architectural sculpture in the late-afternoon sun. I did not get a chance to go inside, but the domed structure itself is breathtaking.

I wander the Sultanahmet Square and note its peculiar mix of political metaphor: Greek and Egyptian obelisks and a German fountain dotting the plaza. Recalling the Istanbul scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno (which transpires roughly where I stand), I locate the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is where I’ll go first in the morning. I also find a gorgeous sweet shoppe, displaying the mounds of Turkish Delight that I’ll soon see is ubiquitous in this city. It reminds me of a Charleston Chew-meets-nougat-meets-gummy bear, only with pistachios and coconut. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I vow to find the best one in the city and buy some to take home with me (because clearly the 100g I’ve purchased won’t last the evening). Dinner is exquisite grilled calamari that rivals what I had in Sardinia, fresh bread with muhammara (a fantastic Turkish red pepper and walnut spread) and grilled sea bass, plucked from a pile of just-caught poissons on display in the lobby. My first quarter-day here is pas mal, if I do say so myself.

Monday: in which I do the tourist thing.

Olives and cheese and eggs for brekkie: I could get used to this. Well-sated and map in hand, I head out for a day of touristing. First stop: Basilica Cistern. Descending the 52 steps into this ancient cistern, an underground reservoir that filtered water for the grand Topkapi Palace, the first word in my head is WOW (and it’s the first word of those who enter just after me as well). Turkish music echoes. The ceiling is 9 metres high, its stone arches making it seem more cathedral-like than anything underground. Unfolding around me is a sea of carved marble columns radiating and reflecting the reddish light. The arches look medieval and Greek and Persian all at once. Towards the back of the cistern, a pathway leads to Medusa heads carved into column bases, supporting just two of the 336 columns in this magically eerie place. There are Doric and Ionic and Corinthian columns, and one which is called “Hen’s Eye” and is said to represent the tears shed by slaves who died building this place. I pause for a moment to connect the dots of horror from Zanzibar’s slave market, visited mere days before, to this grandeur. The music is haunting.

My next stop is Topkapi Palace. Almost by accident, I’ve wandered through one of the grand, guarded, fairytale-arched entrances to the palace, following old stone walls as I walked along the tram route towards the Bosphorous. I’ve purchased a scarf at a local shop to ward off the chilly air. From the patient proprietor, while talking tourism (v. slow these days) and sales tactics (low-pressure wins more business), I learn where to find the best Turkish Delight in the city: Koska, a fact subsequently confirmed by more than one local (luckily, it’s mere blocks from stop #3, the Mısır Çarşısı or spice bazaar).

Meandering through the gardens and buildings of Topkapi Palace and taking in the architecture, I reflect on the way of life in a place like this: servants and slaves and someone to wait one’s every whim. Gilded rooms and accoutrements abound, I bristle at the present-day irony of what the commoners’ tax dollars supported in medieval times. I dare not reflect on what today’s aspiring western Sultans would do with the harem or their quarters.

I consider the concept that I’m guided by spices as I continue walking, the narrower streets widening to a bustling downtown that reminds me of a cross between 34th Street in NYC and small villages like Jojawar in Rajasthan, the cobblestone streets and ancient stone mosques yielding only partially to modern commerce and city din, set on the banks of a strait dotted with Ottoman castles and mansions, the European-influenced Galata tower rising from the far European shore of what’s called the Golden Horn. I find the candy shop as well as the spice bazaar, not without getting turned around 6 or 7 times and stumbling upon a demonstration of sorts in the square just outside the market.

I wend my way back to my B&B with time to purchase some souvenir-worthy Turkish baklava, chat with more ever-so-friendly carpet sellers (I am mistaken for a Turkish woman from the back, with my new scarf tied apparently well enough to pass), partake in some local cuisine (for the record, my hummus is better!) and crumple into bed, exhausted, just after the last adhan sounds. Walk-weary legs having surely earned a pile of adventure points for the 17km I marched today.

The next morning, I have time to visit the Blue Mosque (exterior more impressive than interior to this tourist), wander some more around the charming neighbourhood, and I find myself lost amidst narrow cobbled streets and old relics of a time when building was an artform in stone.

At the airport, my travel bubble is burst when I am subjected to a ridiculous succession of security checks and passport controls between the entrance and the gate, an apparent result of the new regulations passed whilst we were in Africa. I fleetingly contemplate ditching the flight to the US altogether and boarding a train to northern Europe. The roaring of distant dragons compels my return to finish projects-in-process back in the real world. Bleh.


Back home, as I succumb to the jet-lag and collapse into my own bed, I feel the irony of re-entry pulse through my every cell…head in East Africa, body in North America, heart in Europe. Demain est un autre jour, I promise myself. My last thoughts before sleep finally takes hold: soothing accents, a swirl of bright colours, azure sea and sky, a personal aquarium, the embrace of a dear heart, mounds of spices in a faraway bazaar, dreamy magic carpet-like music, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean and the germinating seedlings of what I’ve dubbed year of Africa.

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town. Spices. Ivory. Slaves.

[Part I: Pemba Magic]

flight1Early on this Sunday morning, the small plane carries its payload from Pemba back to the relative civilisation of the island of Ugunja where two of its passengers are to spend their last full day in Zanzibar exploring the streets, sights and sounds of Stone Town.

It is something of a sensory overload, this urban-ish smell of more densely-packed humans, the noise and bustle of cars, the barking of street vendors and flurry of tourists galore, compared with the tranquility we’ve just left on Pemba: the sweet fragrance of flowers in the air, a magical carpet of stars in the sky, African nocturnal critters rustling in the bush, crickets and bushbabies our nighttime soundtrack. And playing over in my mind is the hilarity of the prior night’s bushbaby “hunt” involving a baited stake-out, hoping to lure the small beasts with a mango while we hid, cameras peeled and giggles stifled, behind a wall. Meanwhile the bushbabies laughed at us from the trees above and made off with the mango after we got tired of the game and went to bed. A fruitless fruited effort, as it were.

Stone Town is essentially the crumbly remains of the capital of the old Zanzibar Sultinate (crumbles observed literally, as we walked past the blue cheese-like bits of a building that had recently succumbed to time and gravity). Stone Town was a big deal in its day: the hub of the spice, ivory and slave trades in East Africa in the 19th Century. Today the old city it is a World Heritage Site, though its largest industry these days is in catering to tourists.

We’re staying at the Stone Town Café and B&B in the thick of the Shangani section of town; blocks to the waterfront and not far from the two landmarks we’re keen on seeing here: the slave market site and the Darajani spice bazaar. I’ve chosen this place in part because of their work with the Creative Education Foundation, a schooling project that gives a Waldorf education to disadvantaged kids in Zanzibar. Disadvantaged kids back home look like sultans compared with the level of poverty found here. And because music is integral to their curriculum, I’ve brought with me things that can’t be gotten on the island: a stash of recorders (the musical kind) and some yarn for their arts projects at the suggestion of Judi, Stone Town Café’s owner.

DSC_2942 (2)Stone Town feels 10 degrees hotter than Pemba, although the thermometer reads virtually the same. So we pack water, have a nice meal of these Tanzanian breakfast chapatis of which we’ve become raving fans (they resemble a delectable cross between crêpe and injera), and take to the streets of Stone Town for our day of sightseeing.

Shops and more shops line the narrow maze of cobblestone streets, and we’re harassed every several metres to buy a souvenir or six. We dodge the crap-sellers (an I ❤ Tanzania mug is not on the liste de courses) by ducking down emptier streets, and wend our way towards Darajani market. Asking directions, we’re led by a guy to the market and find we need to lose him by promising to come to his spice shop later (our mistake: he pops up unexpectedly and repeatedly throughout the day, “you promised to come to my shop but you didn’t…” I would ironically meet his long-lost twin in Istanbul the following evening).

Finally, we reach our destination. Outside, tropical fruits from pineapples to mangoes to rambutan are on display. Inside, my stomach turns as we enter the ‘hall of meat’. The fish section is more interesting (and palatable), as every imaginable fish is on offer. Then we find the spice stands and my inner cardamom goddess dances with joy; I’m on the lookout for the merchant with the freshest-seeming stock. I love perusing the aisles, laden with every variety of local banana, taking in the pungent aromas, the piles of chilies, vegetables, fruits…everything here piques my senses.

I haggle with a merchant for kilos of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, star anise and of course the local cloves. My spice stores now overflowing, we’re off to find a market of a different variety.

Human chattel.

Exotic as Zanzibar sounds, its roots are in Africa’s darkest trades: slaves and ivory. Its spice trade, while sweetening the air, was also mired in shadow. Slaves worked the plantations that grew the spices to serve Omani and European needs. A vicious circle, which only partially ended when the slave market on Zanzibar was closed in 1873. The slave trade continued underground on Zanzibar for decades, and until 1909 in Pemba when those slave markets were closed as well.

Zanzibar was the Arab world’s largest slave market. Slaves were used to transport ivory to the coast, their handlers fetching double remuneration: for both the goods and their haulers. Those not carrying ivory were marched as bound animals, heavy wooden stocks around their necks, hands tied around the beams to thwart escape, from places like the Congo and Zambia. Many perished, some escaped and some were sold or traded along the way. Many others died as they were packed into the hulls of the trading ships bound for Zanzibar’s shores. Bodies of the recently- and not quite-dead were thrown overboard so the slave traders didn’t have to pay duty on their stale cargo. As if this treatment wasn’t inhumane enough, the humans-turned-chattel were then confined to underground holding rooms on the slave market site for days with no food, water or daylight (save a small window carved into a stone wall for ventilation), awaiting auction day. 75 were kept in a single 30 or 40 square metre cell, where many perished in the process. It was said that the strongest (quality merchandise if you will), after surviving the holding room and the requisite lashings while tied to the market’s central tree, fetched the best prices at auction.

An Anglican church now sits on the slave market site. They’ve set up a room inside one of the buildings with a pictorial depiction of Zanzibar’s slave history. Outside, a Swedish artist has carved a sculpture that incorporates some of the market’s original chains and shackles; in seeing these I think that no level of tribute could ever right the wrongs inflicted here. Even the distilled version of the atrocities turn my stomach; I can’t at all fathom what the survivors endured…surely this is the definition of ‘a fate worse than death.’

DSC_2998So with this historical dark stamp on our hearts, we wend back towards the B&B via some quieter roads not taken. We pass the old fort (a plaque is inscribed with ngome kongwe: Oldest Castle), stumble across a wood craftsman’s shop and purchase a couple of miniature Zanzibar chests as mementos, then decide to make a 2nd trip to the spice market (running into and dodging our “you promised” friend again) to haggle anew for a pile of goods to fill C’s spice shelves too. Returning to the same vendor near closing time had its benefits – I think he got the better deal than I.

A monsoon-like thunderstorm heralds our pre-dawn wake-up call, rains so intense that we’re concerned the plane won’t take off. But as we get closer to the airport, the skies clear and we’re shuttled through security for this next leg of the journey that will transport us back to Europe.

As we while away the hours on the flight, my mind replays our adventures in Africa, under and above water. With faraway friends, you must treasure each moment spent with them, as life sometimes gets in the way of life and you don’t know which visit may be your last or when the next will come. 💗

We say our goodbyes at Istanbul airport and my Calvin boards his flight home. And I, with melancholy heart, walk towards passport control to continue my adventures in this old-meets-new city, background music resonating in my head, “Istanbul not Constantinople.”

[Part I: Pemba Magic]