It had been seven years since we’d been on safari, so when Mark’s mom asked us if we wanted to join her in Africa, it was pretty easy to say, “Yes!” After a bit of planning we decided to join an organized group tour that was heading to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia for the first eighteen days in August. We were joined by Diane’s long-time friend from Kingsburg, Jo Ann Polenz. The four of us made great travel partners, and even though there were a few bumps in the road, we are very grateful for the time we got to spend with both of them.
Among the highlights were some spectacular animal sightings, some thoughtful retrospection about conservation and life in general, and some beautiful lodges. Lowlights included violent diarrhea, a trip leader who was determined to say no to everything we asked him, and way too many group activities of “Learning and Discovery.” I will share just a few memories.
Elliot’s Pontification on Life
On our first morning game safari in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, our guide Elliot Nobula drove just out of the camp and then stopped the jeep. He climbed out and bent over to pick a few twigs off a small bush. It was wild basil, and by crushing the leaves suddenly the sweet aroma of basil was overpowering. Each of us held a piece of the fragrant basil as he spoke. What started as a simple explanation of the plant, turned into a beautiful poem.
“This plant may smell like something you may remember. All living organisms have a way of communicating with us. Right now this plant is talking and has joined our conversation. Considering that I have learnt to appreciate and understand true language passed on to me by all living organisms, be it animals, trees, insects, also herbs like this wild basil, that smells like comfort, like Vicks. Every time I find it out there I pick it up and behave as if I’m addicted to it.
In my village, when children cry all night long it is thought the innocent kids are seeing goblins or spirits. The elders then advise and encourage the use of this weed by burning it on the hot charcoal. As it smolders it drives the bad spirits out for good. Basically as the smoke fills the hut the kids’ nasal cavities open up and feel better from the mucus congestion. So would we say the bad spirits live in the nasal cavity? Ha! Food for thought!
These plants talk to other animals such that they do not get browsed, so they can reach maturity and the seeds can be re-propagated. It is an amazing defensive manner since these animals may not like the taste.
All living organisms’ first and most important mandate is to maintain their gene pool, so they evolve and adapt in a manner where they continue to regenerate and reproduce. Hence they are like us. We want to see our own reflection in the mirror. That mirror is our own offspring.
Humans just need to humble themselves in front of Mother Nature so that they have a mutual relationship with other living organisms which they clearly depend on. With this attitude to all around us, conservation may be achieved through sustainable utilization in a symbiotic relationship.
If this was my supermarket, it would remain to be my church too, since I pray all the time without trying too hard.”
Afterwards he said, “With that prayer, let’s go see if we can find some elephants.”
When our tiny plane landed in the Okavango Delta on a desolate airstrip, we were met by two guides waiting for us in jeeps. On the short drive to camp we spotted a few elephants walking in a lush marsh, and we quietly watched them for a while. Then we noticed a lone bull elephant a little further away. Kabo, our guide, expertly moved our jeep so that we would be right in his path. Sure enough, a few minutes later the bull approached us and came so close that a few of us could have reached out and touched him. It was thrilling and frightening at the same time, and I smiled as I heard Diane say something to the driver. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was something along the lines of, “Uh, are we ok? There’s an ELEPHANT right there.” It was quite a moment and luckily Nick got a great shot of it from the other vehicle.
The Wild Dog Chase
It was day five of our safari and we still hadn’t seen a predator except for a few wonderful minutes the first morning when we spotted the leopard. We were now in the Okavango Delta which was full of all kinds of exciting predators, so we knew it was only a matter of time. Since we had arrived there the camp guides were talking about the wild dogs that lived nearby. Wild dogs are not as well known as some of the other African predators, but keep in mind that they are not feral dogs that used to be domesticated. They are their own wild species, sometimes called “the Painted Dog” because of their unique markings. Their populations are incredibly endangered and there are only about 250 packs left on earth.
Here in the Delta, their den, which had been located and marked by the guides, was recently abandoned. The guides were worried because there were lion tracks around the den, and their fear was that perhaps lions had killed their pups. The pack hadn’t been seen since the lion tracks were discovered. In fact, as we were out game driving we met a group of researchers and our guide informed them of the bad news about the lion tracks near then den. The researchers’ faces dropped and they looked visibly upset.
But that afternoon while we took our siesta, Wise went searching for signs of them and spotted their tracks. As soon as we jumped in the jeep he took us straight to their last tracks. He said that since the sun was almost down it was likely that they would be waking up soon to start hunting. Within twenty minutes, suddenly, there they were! It was so exciting to spot them! Sure enough, they were just trotting across the bush, and we counted 18 of them.
One pup was missing, so the lion probably got him, but the guides were stoked to see that the other pups were still alive. Within minutes the dogs started spreading out into a wide flank, in hunting formation. It’s sort of surprising to learn that wild dogs are the most effective predators in Africa. Because they can run for long distances and always hunt together, they can tire out almost any type of prey. As a survival strategy, all prey animals have a “zone of safety” that they alter depending on the type of predator. If they see a lion nearby, they know how far away they need to be in order to be safe from getting caught. A cheetah, who is faster, requires a different safety distance. In general most prey animals prefer to “see” their predators from a distance so they know where they are. Wild dogs are different. There is no comfortable safety zone between a prey animal and a wild dog. If a prey animal sees a dog, he starts running. No matter how far away a wild dog is, he can eventually take down prey. The dogs just tire out their prey by running forever.
So on this night the dogs quickly spread out so widely that they were almost a mile apart. They were setting up to use their strategy of confusing their prey and coming in at every angle. Which such a large pack, it seemed likely they would eat soon. Of course as they spread out they strayed off the road, but the beauty of being in a private reserve, rather than a game park, is that we were allowed to drive off road. We were in Wise’s vehicle (which was lucky, as he is the MASTER of tracking and rough driving). He took off after them driving through bushes and ditches and chasing them like mad.
At one point they led us to a marsh and they crossed over it to a small island. Wise looked at the deep water between us and the island, and hesitated a bit considering the risk of driving through the deep water. Eventually he went for it and we prayed we didn’t get stuck. We made it! We got to the island and in the bushes we found the four pups and two “babysitter” dogs with them. The rest of the pack had kept going and were nowhere in sight. It seemed the pups had stayed behind because they couldn’t keep up, so they were playing around on the marshy island while the babysitters watched over them. The puppies were so adorable. About three months old, they were just starting to learn about hunting so today was just a play day for them.
We had a wonderful five minutes with them until suddenly there was a long shriek of howling in the distance. Mark said, “I think they caught something.” He was right! About a mile away the pack had taken down a lechwe, a small antelope. When wild dogs catch something, they all go crazy for a moment with excitement. The pups and the babysitters’ ears perked up and immediately the babysitters took off, obviously anxious to get a piece of that antelope. The puppies fell behind and suddenly the babysitters had swum across to the next patch of land and the puppies waited hesitantly on the shore, afraid to cross the water by themselves. We all got very worried that the pups would get lost. One of them tried to swim across but halfway there changed his mind and swum back. The others stood at the bank nervously. Ironically our driver Wise was in a similar predicament. He wanted to drive through the water to catch up with the pack, but he wasn’t sure the jeep would make it either. Finally Wise started driving across and at the same time the pack made a loud howl again. As soon as the pups heard it, they dove into the water, following us and the sounds of their family.
We all arrived at the kill around the same time, and the pups got in the action, chewing on what was left of the carcass. The entire antelope was completely eaten within ten minutes. It was an amazing thing to see!
After the excitement of the wild dog hunt, we went to bed with happy hearts, but we were woken in the middle of the night by a male lion roaring in our camp. Everyone heard it and at breakfast we all talked about it excitedly. We jumped in Wise’s vehicle after breakfast and he followed the lion’s tracks straight out of camp. In the vehicle with us was Glen, the Kawi Village representative who was there to ensure the guides followed the rules and respected their land. But Glen was not really an enforcer. He and Wise had a long history of tracking together and the two of them set to work tracking this male lion. Watching them work together following the tracks was thrilling. They would drive for a minute, and then study the tracks. Sometimes one or the other would jump out to look at tracks and point in a direction to the other and they would both jump back in and drive on. After about five minutes they said the tracks had changed and now there was a female and a young adult as well. Later they remarked that there was a giraffe. And then, very quietly, Glen motioned to the left and said, “There are the lions.” Lying about 10 feet away from us under the bushes were five gigantic lions. All were sleeping except the male lion, who had a recently-killed baby giraffe in his claws and was busy munching its neck. They looked up at us but didn’t seem bothered in the least.
I really enjoyed watching Mark’s mom’s reaction. She looked frightened but awed and utterly on the edge of her seat. Jo Ann had already stood up and Wise quietly said, “Ok, guys. These are LIONS. Do not stand up or make any quick movements.” Jo Ann sat down. Mark and I grinned.
We settled the jeep just a few feet away from them and spent the next half hour watching the male enjoy his breakfast. The two sister females had caught the giraffe early that morning. The mama, auntie and two eight-month-old cubs had already feasted on it before the male showed up. They all were relaxing in the warm morning sun with full bellies.
Later we watched as the cubs tried to go back to the carcass for seconds. The male lion growled as they approached and when the male cub moved a little closer, the male lion made a ferocious fake charge that sent the cub running. The male then dragged his paw across the sand making a line, and urinating over it. It was a clear sign that this boundary was not to be crossed. However, a few minutes later when the female cub tried the same thing, the male lion’s growling was half-hearted and eventually he let her snuggle up to him and eat more of the carcass. The guide explained that the male was already feeling a bit competitive with his son, who would eventually leave the pride to find his own, whereas this female cub daughter would stay in the pride forever and would soon be hunting for her father, so he felt a stronger allegiance to her. Daddy’s little girl.
We came back late that afternoon and the lions were still napping in the bushes. We were treated to a delightful little “hunt” by the female cub. A jackal showed up, probably smelling the kill, and started trotting around the perimeter trying to figure out if he could steal a snack. Of course he didn’t stand a chance against the male lion, but he was just checking. The female cub spotted him and for a few moments started stalking him. He ran off eventually but it was great to see her skills getting more refined!
Flying the helicopter in the Delta with Wise and Junior
Mark got to fly his drone at each of the parks, but one of the highlights was in the Delta. The camp manager Junior was quite keen to see the drone in action, so he arranged for Wise to drive us out to the bush for a bit of flying after lunch. It was Wise, Junior, Mark and I, and it was so nice to be without the group for a change. On the way out we were lucky to spot a sparrow hawk flying low with a snake in his talons. He dropped the snake and then flew off. Then a Tawny Eagle swooped down, grabbed the snake, and took off. Wise, who is a self-proclaimed “bird lover,” started shaking his head when we asked him what had happened. He said, “It doesn’t make sense. The sparrow hawk doesn’t hunt snakes. And why did he drop it? Maybe it’s a different bird?” He studied the scene with his binoculars and flipped through his bird book and finally he said, “Aha. That sparrow hawk was after a mouse, and grabbed it just as a snake was also trying to eat the mouse. The snake got caught in his talons too. When the snake fell, the sparrow hawk flew off to eat the mouse and then the Tawny Eagle came down and swooped up the snake.” Pretty cool turn of events!
We arrived at a clearing and Mark showed the boys how the helicopter worked and then flew over a group of hippos. He let Wise fly it a little bit and both of them were excited about the potential for photography from the drone vantage. It was a magical moment for sure.
Observations about African Life and Culture
I find that many travelers try to make quick generalizations about the people and cultures they meet, attempting to put them “in a box” so they can easily understand and classify them. I am hypersensitive to these quick, hasty observations, and I endeavor to keep my eyes and ears open before making judgements. However, one thing I feel fairly confident in summing up is that family is so much more important here in southern Africa. Almost everyone has large extended families and they rely on each other so much more than in the US. Aunties are necessary to help you arrange your marriage. If you and your boyfriend want to get married, he has to go to your auntie with his family to work out the details. I asked, “What if your mom or dad doesn’t have a sister? What if you don’t have an auntie?” and I was answered, “You always have an auntie. It’s impossible for you not to have auntie! You have many aunties!”
Extended family members also take care of your cattle and farms when you go to the city to work. In the city, family members take in cousins and nieces and nephews when they are going to school. However, people prefer to retire back in their villages, even if they are humble and without even water and electricity, rather than remain in the cities where they worked and raised their children (just like in Mexico).
Though they are gradually modernizing, people are much more conservative about issues like homosexuality and women’s rights. Women cannot drink or smoke without getting a bad “reputation.” Men still get much more respect and privileges than women. In fact, a wife is not supposed to look directly into her husband’s eyes because it will appear that she is “challenging him.”
American culture is slowly influencing the youth, especially TV. The Kardashians were a topic. We were asked about them and their general comment was, “We are very confused by them.” So are we!.
The way people talk is beautiful and gentle and full of laughter. They speak English fluently with a singsong African accent, and occasionally use delightful diction and turns of phrases like “If you wish to extend your territory, we can stop the jeep at any time.” Whenever a guide gave us a briefing, he ended with, “So, are we together?” Their accents and diction still ring in my head melodically.
Why Mark and I “Do Not Play Well with Others”
I definitely learned a bit about myself during these eighteen days on a group tour. After about Day 3, Mark and I were ready to ditch the tour. It wasn’t that we didn’t get along with our fellow travelers—they were all quite pleasant, polite, and friendly. It was just that we didn’t want to follow the trip leader, Hupu. It was so hard to let him lead us around, giving us a “briefing” at least four times a day, dictating when we would eat, when we would sleep, and even when we would go to the bathroom.
As many of you know, I am used to being the leader (they didn’t call me Michaela “I have a better idea” Monahan during girl scouts for nothing!). So it was natural that when our leader Hupu told us how the morning would go, often I would have some suggestions. Now I know that being on a group tour means compromise, and I suppose I probably need to work on that aspect of myself, but gosh darn it, my ideas were good ones! Anytime I asked for a tiny little modification, he would say no without even considering a way to accommodate me. From the very beginning he seemed not to like Mark and me, perhaps because we were the odd balls of the group, the only ones under 65, not dressed in khakis with pocketed vests, and travelling with a helicopter drone. (As an aside, before we left I was joking with Diane about her packing list, and I was teasing her about avoiding fashion faux paxs. My advice was to avoid this:
And if necessary, lean towards “safari chic.”
You can guess what our fellow travellers looked like.)
The other problem was that we had already been on several safaris and every time they had been private ones in which we called all the shots. If we saw a lion kill and wanted to hang out for an hour and see if the hyenas showed up, we did. If we wanted to get up an hour early so we hit the bush right at sunrise, we would. Now, suddenly, we had to go along with the group. So that made this safari significantly inferior to the other ones, which was a major bummer.
Finally, since Mark and I began travelling together almost twenty years ago, we have always avoided group tours because we crave our independence. We like to skip a day sometimes and just lounge around camp, soak up the camp atmosphere, or spend time writing. We like to make time for working out. But our trip leader was adamant that we participate in everything. For example, each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) was set on a long table in which there was a guide or staff member seated at every third seat. The purpose was for us to interact with our fellow guests and African hosts. And this is great, but not for every meal. After a while we realized we were spending just a few minutes a day talking with Mark’s mom because we were expected to socialize with so many other members of the group. We started feeling bitter that our “quality time” was being hijacked by our Nazi trip leader. I tried to hijack it back by sneaking into the dining room early and rearranging chairs just so we could all sit together, and I would hustle back and forth from the bar to our tents during happy hour so we could enjoy our drinks privately before dinner. But it was a real EFFORT just to have time to talk.
Anyway, lesson learned! We will never do a group tour again!
“In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.” Why this group was hilarious.
Ok, let me remind you that the other ten Americans joining us on this trip were all good natured, kind people. Some of them were also fairly well-travelled, though without much experience travelling independently. However, a few of them said some hilarious things that kept us giggling in our tents for many hours after dinner.
For example, they frequently felt the need to “educate” our African guides, waiters, and housekeeping staff about the ways of America. They seemed genuinely convinced that the staff was actually interested in learning about our cultures, and I can’t count the number of times I heard them explaining, “In our culture, the women go to work…” or, “In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.” It was clear to me and Mark that when a staff member hovered over our shoulder during dessert, she really had zero interest in learning about our culture, and actually just wanted to know if we wanted tea or coffee. But our fellow guests naively thought differently.
The cherry on top was the last night of each of the four camps we stayed at. There was a predictable “last night at camp” show performed by the staff, in which everyone came out from behind the scenes to sing a few African songs in their local language. Their voices were beautiful and a few of them seemed into it, but overall they were basically “on the clock” dancing for the Americans. But what was worse is that after they finished singing, they invited us up to perform. Hmm…what did the staff expect? And more importantly, what did they want? I believe they didn’t necessarily want to swap seats, sit back, and be entertained by dancing Americans. Instead, I think they just wanted to go to bed because they had to get up again at 4:30 in the morning to make our breakfast.
But our group of fellow Americans felt differently. They earnestly believed that the staff was craving American culture and dancing, and by God, they were determined to provide it. What kind of entertainment did we perform, you ask? Well, the first musical ensemble was a stirring rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Then, another beautiful melody called “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But that was not it! Seven songs later (including another cultural meme “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which was prefaced by an explanation of Santa Claus, and yes, with our hands on our hearts, “God Bless America”) the final straw was when 15 white Americans sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to a group of black Africans. That was our cue to leave.
Mark and I managed to get out of two of these performances by sneaking out before dessert, but we have to admit we did stand up there a few times (against our will). The last show was pretty funny because by then the Americans were busy rehearsing throughout the afternoon and planning an even more elaborate performance. I normally don’t mind hearing people singing (Did I mention that three of them were active local theater performers back home?) but when they were practicing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on our six-passenger light aircraft and there’s nowhere to hide, Mark and I were about to lose it. The trip leader caught wind of it and actually took some of us aside and said that our performance had to be short because otherwise the staff would need to be paid overtime to watch it. Ha! Finally, proof that the staff had to be paid to suffer through this torture!
The highlight of the trip for Mark was the thrilling morning he piloted his drone helicopter over Victoria Falls. Even before he took off, the “mission” was already a bit dicey because it was unclear if he was actually allowed to fly there. Not only does Victoria Falls lie across the international border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are frequent ultralight and helicopter flights hovering over the falls that he could technically interfere with. But you know Mark. When it comes to rules in a gray area, you could say that is his niche. His first flight was picture perfect, and after a few minutes he had a crowd of locals and tourists huddled around his screen watching the footage he was taking above. But perhaps he got too cocky, because even though the battery was low, he pushed it a little longer than usual. When he knew time was up, he looked in the air to find the drone so he could navigate it home, but it was unfortunately behind him in the direction of the sun. It was impossible to see, so he tried to use the “force” to bring it home. The force was weak in him that day. Eventually the drone “emergency return to home” feature clicked on (he had never had to use this function) and Mark just prayed that it would come home. He frantically scanned the skies and then watched on the screen as the helicopter descended quickly and crashed into the jungle. He had no idea where it was.
The drone sends out a signal when it crashes but only until the battery runs out, so he knew he only had a few minutes. He started frantically running around the waterfalls searching for it, but no luck. After about twenty minutes he was about to give up when a local boy ran up to him and said, “Did you lose an airplane?” The boy had seen the direction in which it crashed. Mark said, “Let’s go!” and the boy ran with him down the path for a half-mile. Then the boy jumped into the bushes and came out a minute later with the drone. Mark was so relieved and happy!
After that, he flew one more mission (this time even more aggressively, but without crashing!). Here are the fruits of this labor of love:
It was very special for us to spend time together, especially for Mark and his mom. They had some “moments” driving around in the bush while listening to songs from The Power of One on their headphones (I think they both were crying). Those two have a special bond and I just love seeing how much they love each other. One night his mom really opened up, telling us stories that we had never heard before about her childhood and her time in Vietnam. She told tales ranging from partying with her fellow officers in Nha Trang to white-water rafting the class IV rapids of the Colorado. It is no secret where Mark gets his zest for travel and adventure. What was also terrific was to see her enthusiasm for exploring renewed, and it was clear that this trip just strengthened her resolve to seek out more adventures (hopefully with us by her side!).
(Oh yeah! And I think the best thirty seconds of the trip for me were during this zip line over the Zambezi!)
So even though this trip wasn’t what we had hoped for, there were definitely some great moments that we will treasure, like the wind in my hair as we drove around in the open jeep scanning the horizon for animals, the fun of learning bits of each new language, sundowners overlooking silhouettes of African Baobab trees, and monkeys peering in my tent during nap time. Thanks for reading, everybody!