The Maasai villages still operate much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. That is, they live in small compounds, with their animals, practicing rituals and ceremonies that have been handed down over generations.
After a performance of a traditional Maasai dance at our game lodge, I was walking back to my tent with one of the porters (it’s dark and there are critters around) and he asked me how I liked the show. “Did you see me jumping?” he asked. The lodge employs Maasai workers both as a contract with the tribe and to add cultural panache to the fancy digs. “It was great”, I replied, not recognising him in his uniform. “Jump highest and get a free lady,” he said with a humungous grin.
I had some understanding around the Maasai practices of arranged marriage and also polygamy, that the community has input into both, including negotiating the bride price. Wealth is measured in cows and wives here, after all. So I asked him whether he got a free lady. Beaming, he said, “Yes. I jump the highest. I’m going to get another one.” 💖
Welcome to the Maasai Mara. This park covers nearly 16002 km, roughly the size of London, which sounds actually smaller than it felt being there. The savannahs seemed to go on forever, or at least to Tanzania, where the Maasai Mara connects with the Serengeti to form an inter-national animal migration route. So once again I felt as though I were in a postcard rather than seated in a Land Cruiser in the southwestern part of Kenya making photos of the place.
The objective, apparently, in the Maasai Mara, is to find big cats. And while I liked seeing leopards and lions lounging in the sun, I honestly preferred the elephants grazing gracefully with their still-fuzzy calves. I preferred the zebras grazing amid the long grasses, the sun painting a glowing carpet. I preferred the giraffes, with necks so long they looked like they were floating along the savannah like giant puppets. I preferred the rhinos for their prehistoric and surreal stature; the rhinos curiously watching, with their notoriously terrible eyesight, the tourist-filled Land Cruisers, as if we were long-lost relatives.
And there were the hippos. If you guessed that these were the deadliest African beasts, you’d be correct! In fact, hippos kill 40 times more people per year than sharks (even coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, but that’s a completely different argument!). The sad truth, however, is that if you include all types of fauna, the deadliest animal in Africa is still the mosquito.
But I digress. Watching the hippos from the bush lodge in the Maasai Mara was a fantastic lunchtime activity. The word hippopotamus comes from the Greek word meaning river horses, presumably because they spend so much time in the water, protecting themselves from the sun. But upon hearing their clamour one afternoon, I have a different theory…
Before Mt. Kenya was called as such, the Kikuyu people called the it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga, loosely translated to ‘the area of the ostrich’, for its black rock and snow-capped peaks that resembled the awkward bird’s plumage. Once the Colonists arrived and simplified (read: bungled) the name, the land (and Mountain) was christened as Kenya.
The last day in the Maasai Mara was elephants and ostriches and secretary birds and hornbills and other savannah oddities, plus trains of wildebeests and hartebeests and zebras, bringing up the rear end of the Great Migration towards the Serengeti. And as much as I’d like to post even more of the thousands of frames I shot, I’ll wrap up with a few more of my favourites.
So while I saw exactly zero glimpses of Mt. Kenya, I left the Rift Valley feeling like I had been squarely in the area of the ostrich for some time. I’ll end with another reading list to paint a more vivid picture of the country from several different perspectives:
Here I was, on a plane much larger than anticipated, flying over Lake Victoria from Kigali to Nairobi. It was like crossing a small ocean, a giant black hole in the night with a lot of unknowns waiting on the lake’s eastern shores. During the flight, I was piecing together in my brain what I thought I knew about Kenya and its history, but memories of the hordes of elephants I saw in Botswana, and the near-misses of them in Rwanda only gave me elephant dreams commingled with fuzzy expectations for the week ahead.
My thoughts, as I wended my way through immigration, then baggage, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, were that thankfully most airports everywhere function pretty much the same, whether in English or Swahili.
Truth be told, I prepared little for this trip. I signed up a mere 10 days before departure, visions of myriad wildlife and their Great Migration dancing in my head. I hastily arranged yellow fever and typhoid vaccines, solicited favors for airport runs and plant-sitting, packed, then departed, leaving my overwhelming reality behind if only for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t had time to consider the urban spaces dotting the beginning, middle and end of the adventure.
And so, landing in Nairobi was very different than arrival in Kigali. Nairobi is fairly large as cities go, with roughly the population of Sydney; 5x that of Kigali. The slick urban-ness of the place was a little jarring as we navigated through traffic from the airport into the city proper. Gone were the neatly cobbled streets and manicured roundabouts I’d come to adore in Rwanda. This was a City, and all vibes pointed to its wanting to be like New York or LA. Luckily, the first order of business the next morning was to get out and head for the Rift Valley. First stop: Lake Nakuru.
Much of Kenya is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. The dry, dusty and trash-strewn roads we were on are also truck routes, wending their way from the port of Mombasa through the ragged farmlands, to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda. Travelling these roads helped paint a clearer picture of some of the country’s struggles, not least of which is their high unemployment rate. Note: Although we were repeatedly told it is around 40%, which likely takes into consideration their high level of self-employment, and which official numbers don’t incorporate, I can’t find any statistics from the World Bank or elsewhere that puts unemployment there any higher than 5.7%. Even so, Kenya’s economy and livelihood has taken hits from all sides these past few years.
The fact that the water levels in the lakes of the Rift Valley are rising, apparently indifferent to the massive drought in progress, is a peculiar geological and climactic (and human-generated) paradox that we were about to encounter first-hand.
At 5 or 6x smaller than Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Lake Nakuru felt like it was teeming with life from the first moments we arrived. Between the fences surrounding the park (keeping animals in and poachers out) and the rising waters (Lake Nakuru is now 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago), habitat is getting squeezed; and, while excellent for wildlife watching, it could mean disaster for an ecosystem if the waters don’t recede soon. One of Lake Nakuru’s claims to fame is its massive flamingo population. They come to the lake because of its warm water and the algae that creates. The rising waters have decreased their population significantly (it was said that sometimes 1 million of the birds flocked here), but in the past couple of years, they have started to return.
So it was a little surreal, driving just from the park gates to our lodge: Buffalo galore, herds of antelope, zebras, giraffes, rhinos… and this was just on the main road. The lodge, nestled within the bounds of the park, was like an oasis overlooking the savannah, and beyond that, the lake itself, glowing a tad pink from the reflection of flamingos on the still water. I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush even a little bit about the lush grounds where the background music was weaver birds; the watering hole replete with visiting buffalo and zebra herds; the jungle huts from which you could hear the gruff sound of lions calling throughout the night…
On our first official safari drive in Nakuru, we spent an hour and a half watching a leopard monitor, then stalk, an impala, only to give up at the 11th hour. By the end of the 2nd day, the bingo cards were filled with all of the Big Five (so-named originally for the difficulty to kill and the danger they posed to the hunter: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo), as well as oodles of points for many of the other birds and critters I’d come to see. By the following day, I was itching to stay on there, but the lure of other parks including the Maasai Mara won out in the end. Also, transport.
Out of Africa, but still here.
Next stop on the itinerary was Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake slightly south of Nakuru. Here, we stayed at a weird lodge with only enough electric fencing to keep out the hippos at night. Water buck and other critters seemed to have free reign of the area, so it was an interesting menagerie-cum-waterside camp experience. Here, too, the waters were very high, meaning that what used to be part of the lodge’s grounds was now part of the lake, and one could see the eerie skeletons of former acacia trees 20 or 30 metres off the shore. The kingfishers and other shorebirds were not complaining one bit.
The afternoon’s activity was to visit a place called Crescent Island, a tiny game reserve in the middle of the Lake. The adventure started with a boat ride over to the island, a scavenger hunt for hippos and crocs en route, and then a walking tour on the island in search of the giant African rock python. I say “in search of” because all we found was evidence, in the form of a massive shed snake skin. Turns out that Crescent Island was one of the many locations used for filming Out of Africa. Legend has it that they imported indigenous animals for the shoots and left them there, rehoming the predators so that the wildebeests and zebras and giraffes and impalas could flourish over time. But that was when Crescent Island was more of a peninsula, and the animals could come and go at will. With the rising waters, it had become an island sanctuary of sorts for the grazing animals, but with water levels recently receding, wily hyenas have made their way back to the island. It will be interesting to see what happens to the balance there if predators have access to this convenient buffet once again.
I’ll pause here to regroup, and to make the drive up out of the Rift Valley and on towards the pinnacle of the trip, the Maasai Mara.
Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.
The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.
I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.
Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.
I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.
I arrive also
without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations
from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set
out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper
Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!
Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night
Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂
Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.
Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.
On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.
After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.
Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.
As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.
Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!
Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.
I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.
The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.
*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.
**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).
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.
It’s with this tingle of seeing Africaup 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 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.
The 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?
“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.
This 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.
My 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.]