There are so many places on this planet I’d rather be right now, and for so many reasons… I’ve missed my niece’s graduation and also a half-baked, not-yet-actually-planned hiking adventure with my favourite co-conspirator. I’ve put off summer plans for a photography expedition with said niece, and I’ve all but lost hope for fall intentions. I’m trying not to think more than a few weeks out right now; even that seems like a massive, whale-gray bank of fog I’m not prepared to chisel through as yet.
So to get out of my own house (and head) if only for a few hours this weekend, I made it a mission to go somewhere I’d never been.
There’s an obscure nature reserve across from a just slightly less obscure one*. I figured out how to get here last weekend, but it was high tide and I didn’t have the right boots to walk the tide-swamped chemin rocheux.
So this weekend I decided to try again, first checking the tide tables and moon phase, which sounds like a fairly new-agey thing to do, but when a full moon can make or break an outing in these parts, it’s worth the effort. The Universe is working in my favour: I had two hours before high tide, and the moon an agreeable waxing crescent. I donned the correct footwear just to be safe**.
This place was deserted, and it was refreshing to be alone in nature, rather than alone in the bubble I’ve occupied for the past 3 months. It felt like I had an alien landscape all to myself. Actually, it reminded me of the Okavango Delta; so much so, that had an ele been foraging in the reeds, I might not have been entirely surprised. Except, of course, that this is New England, on the East Coast of the entirely wrong continent, so there’s that.
I’ll call it a Lockdown Safari; a much-needed escape from this weird hamster wheel we’ve been riding, and a reminder that it’s okay (read: necessary) to step off this merry-go-round if nothing else but to remember that there’s a “there” out there… and even though it’s not Norway or Turkey or Germany or Spain or East Africa or Indonesia or Greece or a dozen of the other places that were or would-have-been under consideration for a visit, it’s still a place I’d never been, full of vibrant springtime colours and resounding birdsong. And a field of poison ivy, the likes of which I’ve never seen…
Today I’m grateful to be able to take at least this small dose of vitamin N(ature), and I’m happy to report that my LightRoom catalogue is looking quite like a page from an Audubon book these days. I’m grateful for the technology that makes it feel like the rest of the world is still there, outside these little personal bubbles in which we’re all semi-trapped; I’m grateful for relative health and thankful for those working so hard to keep us safe. I’m thinking about my niece, whose graduation was a webcast, and my proud-aunt cheers were sadly sent via text and .gif. (Jules, I’m taking you on an adventure as soon as we are able to go!!)
I went to sleep last night feeling that same mix of anxiety and hope and gratitude and quiet paranoia, that dull ache in the pit of my stomach I’ve felt each night of the past several months now. I know I’m not alone, but it’s vexing to fall asleep each night wondering what is this? When will it end? Is it just the beginning? What’s next?
What’s next indeed.
*This place is on the back side of a much less obscure place; that one, the more popular and now closed to car traffic one, is likely in that state because of some entitled individuals exercising their right to… to what exactly? But that’s an entirely separate rant!
**N.B.: Living in New England, I’ve noted that one needs at least 8 different genres of footwear (rain, snow, hot, cold, running, walking, mucky, working) and ditto outerwear, as seasons change haphazardly and frequently (and frequently haphazardly!) here.
***Also very cool for bird freaks, or even wanna-be bird-heads: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put out a fantastic bird-finding app, called eBird, with photo ID, bird calls and a quick bird ID library for birds around the globe. Find it here: https://ebird.org/home.
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.]
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.
Expanse of the Okavango Delta
Ginormous termite mound
Notice the tracks?
The Delta goes on it seems like forever…
Our little bush plane
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.
Mokoros safely docked at camp
Our tents for the evening
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.
We venture back to the mainland in the early morning hours
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.
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.
Doha airport and its 10metre-high bear ‘sculpture’
The old port and the Islamic museum designed by IM Pei
Not enough time to place my order
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.
Now 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.
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….