Vacation From My Vacation

Day 713 – 11 February, 2017

Being a savvy traveler not only involves good decision-making and knowledge of your destination, but also recognizing that when you are searching for a flight from Johannesburg to Mumbai and the cheapest flight happens to be on a little airline called Air Seychelles, which means that your flight will connect in Mahé, Seychelles and you can force a stop for any number of days, that you better take advantage of this unexpected good fortune and stay for as many days as you can well afford. This is how I ended up on a vacation from my vacation (which I say tongue in cheek because most of my travels certainly don’t resemble any kind of vacation that you would recognize). When I booked this flight with an 11 day stop in the Seychelles, I could barely skate by on my meager budget by booking an AirBNB on Mahé Island and another one on Praslin. They both averaged $100/night, which drove a stake into my careful budgeting, but I rationalized that I was due a little splurge and besides, I would be spending my days at the beach. That’s basically free, right?!

It was dark when I arrived and I had arranged for Rupert, the AirBNB owner, to collect me from the airport. Victoria is the capital of the Seychelles, but it’s barely more than a small town with city gridlock traffic so I was lucky to arrive after most of the bustle had dissipated. I found Rupert soft-spoken and really kind as we drove through winding mountain roads toward the west side of the island. Because it was dark, I couldn’t see the view, but he pointed out the local market, the bank, the bus stops and the path to the beach. This was all I needed! When we arrived in Beau Vallon and drove into the gravel driveway of RowsVilla, I was exhausted. I had rented a second floor one room apartment with a balcony and converted kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to do with so much space all for myself. The air conditioner turned the room into an icebox and I snuggled up in just a sliver of the queen-size bed with an extra blanket.

The island sun woke me up as it poked through the slats of the blinds. I wiped the condensation from the sliding glass door as I opened it up to the morning sauna outdoors. I didn’t have much of a view, but the blue sky beckoned me toward the beach and I envisioned a morning coffee at an open-air cafe. Packed a beach bag, grabbed some fruit that Rupert had left in the fridge, and wandered down the path toward Beau Vallon Beach. Some of the most famous residents of the Seychelles are the Aldabra tortoises. I thought I would have to seek them out, but was puzzled to be greeted by the colossal reptiles in a small pen on the shaded path. I couldn’t understand why there were so many in such a small space; it seemed as if they were there for the amusement of the hotel guests nearby.

Beyond the tortoise pen, I walked through the lobby of a beachside resort that opened onto a white sand beach marked by those telltale boulders of which the Seychelles is famous. Beau Vallon is one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted sand on Mahé and there were plenty of palms offering the perfect amount of private shade. The water was as calm as the sea will ever be and I collapsed on my beach towel to soak in the rays.

When I grew hungry later in the day, I quickly learned that there was very little in the way of budget-friendly dining. I tried to find an unpretentious cafe with a place to connect to wifi. My apartment didn’t have wifi, which was inconvenient but surely there would be a cafe that could become my regular spot for the week. No such luck. Many of the restaurants offered mediocre American or European food with tourist prices to match. I tried one that first day and after a disappointing meal and spotty internet, I decided I would have to go shopping for groceries and perhaps buy a SIM card. For groceries, I purchased some eggs, fruit, crackers, and a bag of frozen shrimp imported from Asia and my price tag was in the $50USD range. Hmmm… Stopping at the mobile store, I discovered that a SIM card would be about $40USD to activate and for usage. The Seychelles was indeed blowing up my budget. Ultimately, I decided that I would have to forego coffee and alcohol and internet, all painful sacrifices since I had done little in the way of planning this island visit. Instead of internet research, I would be researching things to do the old-fashioned way – by asking the locals.

From Rupert, I found that I was staying relatively close to a short hike to a private beach, Anse Mejor. Marked by a dot on my map, Rupert dropped me off at the bottom of a curvy cliff side road. A barefoot man with a dirty t-shirt was trying to get my attention. He had what appeared to be a furry bat in a cage and wanted me to take a look. I pretended not to hear him calling me as I began walking up the hill.

The path led over scalding black volcanic boulders for about 30 minutes before opening to Anse Mejor. There were a few people that had arrived before me, mostly couples that kept quietly to themselves. The walk had been sweltering so I found a little protected shallow cove of water where I could lie down and let the warm tropical water run in and out with the waves. An Italian girl, who was traveling alone, and a man in his 30s that appeared to be local, yet he spoke with an English accent, were talking nearby. His name was Jay and he was originally from the Seychelles but had moved to England as a child. He was now a chef in London and returned every year to spend a month with his family.

He had a few local snacks with him. Overcome with curiosity, I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know where and what the locals ate on this cash cow of an island. When I approached, he offered me breadfruit chips and a charred octopus kebab. The three of us easily fell into conversation together. Finally, when the shadows were beginning to grow longer and I decided it was time to go, the Italian girl retreated into the aquamarine water and Jay said he would walk with me back to town. The heat was still punishing as ever and the sweat dripped down my back in rivulets. When we exited the path back on to the road, Jay wanted to introduce me to his friend (the man with the bat). Bat Man was not a fan of mine after I had ignored him on the way up and since I’m not in the business of letting someone curse at me to my face, I casually walked away and let him curse at me to my back.

Eventually, Jay caught up to me and said he knew of a waterfall on the way to Beau Vallon if I wanted to cool off. I had about 2 km to walk on an unshaded asphalt highway so a waterfall sounded great. We turned off the highway, walking away from the coast, toward a decidedly untouristy village with children playing in the mud and a stray dog prancing ahead of us as if he was showing the way. We were only a few hundred meters from Le Meridien Resort but it was as if we had entered another world. There were a couple of teenagers swimming in the waterfall in their underwear; a sliver of soap and a nearly empty bottle of shampoo were tucked into a tree root for public use. It was wonderful.

After two days on my corner of the island, it was time to explore further afield. Port Launay was a beach that had been highly regarded with calm clear water and was only a skip south of where I was staying. I knew that bus service was regular on the island and it was easy to assume that the bus route would go around in a circle. However, after consulting with Rupert, he indicated that even though Port Launay was close in distance, there was a mountain in the way.

I would have to take the bus to Victoria, change vehicles, and continue to my destination via a clockwise route instead of the more logical counter-clockwise approach. I didn’t see much point to checking the bus schedule until I spent almost 45 minutes waiting for the first bus to take me to Victoria. It would be the first time I could see the capital city in the light of day. The trip to Victoria was only about 5 km, but it winds over a narrow mountain pass that makes walking impossible. It took close to 30 mins of bumper to bumper traffic before I saw the cluster of buildings on the eastern side of the island. There was a nice market and a few cafes, but not much else to note for a city of this size. I had planned to explore a little bit, but so far the commute had taken long enough and I headed straight for my next bus. Many of the buses were decommissioned school buses with hard plastic seats and windows that were either permanently up or permanently down. Many local commuters, a handful of tourists, and swarms of mosquitoes were finally on our way to Port Launay, which I now knew was perhaps the furthest and most taxing journey from Beau Vallon that I could have dreamed.

Door to door it took me about 3 hours to set foot on this stretch of beach. The island of Mahé is about 61 sq miles. We stopped every hundred meters or so to pick up or drop off a passenger so I was getting a good tour of the country if there might be anywhere else I should visit that week. The water of Port Launay was exceptionally shallow and with the cloudy skies, it retained a green hue. It appeared to be popular with snorkelers for the brightly colored fish that I could easily see without snorkel gear. Swimming was ideal for the calm water. I had a picnic so I settled in with a good book and willfully procrastinated on making the return trip to Beau Vallon.

After a few more days mixed with bulging rain clouds and quick trips to the beaches nearby, I was ready to take that bus trip again. This time, I left earlier and checked the bus schedule for Anse Takamaka (of which there are 3 Takamakas on Mahé so it was helpful to know which one!). It was generally in the same direction as Port Launay, but further south and facing a different direction, allowing for moderate waves to buffet the boulders that frame both ends. A small wedding was set up on one extreme of the beach, while the other was home to a bungalow resort. Very few people had discovered this little slice of heaven. I spent the day reading and swimming and when I was fully baked, I pulled my beach towel into the shade and took a nap.

Fully sun-kissed after 7 days on Mahé, I reluctantly packed to go back to Beau Vallon from Takamaka. Sans internet, I wasn’t able to check the bus schedule for the return trip. The bus stop was only about 20 meters away and I didn’t have to wait long, but away from the ocean breeze, a cloud of hungry mosquitoes made it seem like I was waiting for that bus for hours. I grabbed a window seat, while a heavyset woman was in the aisle. A girl of approximately 6 years old sat between us in her school uniform. I had assumed they were together until the heavy woman got off the bus and left the little girl behind. Not completely unusual to see a child of her age traveling alone, I had never really given it much thought. However, this time I noticed that her feet didn’t even touch the ground and she was carrying a Dora the Explorer backpack. Just when I was pondering what it must be like to grow up in a place like the Seychelles, the girl vomited into her own hands. She was so quiet and discreet about it, I hadn’t even realized what happened. It was unclear if she was ill or only car sick. Some of the liquid and larger pieces had cascaded down the front of her uniform. The new woman who was sitting on the aisle recoiled and changed seats. The little girl began brushing the chunks off of her dress on to the floor and seemed unsure what to do. I dug in my bag for tissue and water of which I had little, but it seemed to be enough to salvage the situation. I asked if she was ok, but she appeared to not understand the question. It was just beginning to rain as we went back to being strangers; I wished I could do more for her because she seemed genuinely worried about her dress. Then she whispered something to me, so quiet that I barely knew she was speaking at all. She said it again, “Can I lay on you?” My heart breaking, of course I agreed. She laid her head on my shoulder for the rest of the journey back to Victoria.

Animal Planet

Day 708 – 6 February, 2017

Perhaps the most famous game park in all of Africa, Kruger National Park lies on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It’s home to the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant), as well as just about every other creature that is associated with African safaris. I would be spending four days and three nights camping under a star-filled sky (when it wasn’t raining anyway!) with grunting hippos and roaring lions on my playlist. The campgrounds at Nkambeni Safari Camp were located at the far side of the property of a mid-scale resort. There was a large open-air dining room, opening out to the pool deck, which overlooked the hippo pools. The entire property was fenced in, shutting us behind the perimeter and allowing the exterior wilds to remain as such. At any given time, there would be several hippos submerged and blowing bubbles in the murky pond. Just when they would begin to get active, a wave of swimmers would jump out of the swimming pool, cameras ready.

Unlike some of the other game parks I have visited, Kruger is the most accessible from an international airport (Johannesburg) and therefore, the most visited and the most well-equipped. Activities are mostly well-organized, but they pack the visitors in and you are rarely alone while game-viewing. You can book a tour or self-drive and as long as you pay the entrance fee, everyone is welcome. Sidenote: I am a strong supporter of a guided tour, budget notwithstanding. On nine safaris, I have rarely spotted an elusive animal without the help of my guide. Scanning the tall grass or dense bush for the flick of a tail or a triangle-shaped ear can be exhausting after a few hours, but the guides are trained and experienced with finding the big ticket items. And when all else fails, they have a radio so they can ask another guide if they have found anything good. Don’t self-drive a safari unless you have a really good eye!

Right at 4:00, we were holding on to the roll bars as our jeep joined the parade of other jeeps that were all bound for a sundowner in the park. A sundowner, as defined in South Africa, is an African tradition that mostly centers on imbibing a cocktail in a jaw-droppingly picturesque location while watching the sun go down, obviously. Fun fact…the drink of choice in colonial times was a good old-fashioned gin & tonic because the quinine in the tonic is a natural mosquito repellent. True story. It really works! If you drink enough so that you are sweating through a G&T hangover, it will even work for days afterward. I mean….or so I’m told…

A pride of lions had been hanging out in the area of our sundowner for the previous few days so we went straight there to see what might be found. We were joined by several more jeeps that all had the same plan in mind. Radios were on fire as guides checked in with other guides as to the whereabouts of the lions, but no one had seen them in more than 24 hours. We drove up to a rocky lookout where our guide set up a small table of bubbly and the option for a shot of amarula, a cream liqueur made from the marula tree. Because elephants love to eat the fruit of the marula tree, this liqueur is often associated with elephants and sales go toward conservation. With an alcohol content of 17%, I could only stand a sip, but it warmed my throat with a sweet caramel aftertaste.

As the sun began to set, we were warned to stay close to the jeep in case the lions were about. The sky changed from orange to fuchsia to dark purple. With colors that vibrant, we were enchanted and warmed with bubbles from the sparkling wine before we loaded back in the jeep. The park has a strict policy of closing at 6:00pm and we were due to be stamped out on time when we heard on the radio that the lions did turn up exactly where we were looking for them earlier. This was a huge disappointment as we were too far away to turn back. But then something else…a few meters ahead another jeep was parked next to the road as the sky grew darker and darker. They were shining a spotlight in the grass. Only meters away two males lions did not seem at all bothered by the light in their eyes. In fact, they seemed rather bored by it all. Turns out the lions we missed were the females that belonged to this coalition of two. It would have been dangerous (and rude!) to use a flash so mostly we just watched them lie there while they waited for us to go away. Definitely unforgettable to be that close to such big cats in the dark. It wasn’t until we drove away into a black void that you realize how vulnerable we, as humans, are out there in the bush. Our headlights were on low and you could barely see a shape a few meters in front of your face. We received a scolding from the park ranger when we finally exited the main gate. “It’s dangerous out there!,” he said. Duly noted.

The next day the climate was sunny and warm. It appeared the weather was going to cooperate for our full-day game drive. We began early and expectations were high. This was Kruger, after all, one of the best places to safari in the entire world. We drove up and down some paved roads and then turned on to dusty tracks, then gravel roads and then more rutted dusty tracks. And we got nothin’. Maybe there was an antelope or two or some birds, but the landscape was almost entirely barren of life. I refused to give up and stayed alert with my eyes peeled on the horizon the whole time. I was determined to get better at this wildlife-spotting skill. Most of my safari companions were either dozing off or flipping through their photos.

We stopped for a bathroom break at a super touristy canyon with a restaurant and a museum complex. Many of the other patrons seemed to be recounting the same story from the morning. The park was almost vacant. A Swiss woman on my tour expressed some harsh words to our guide as if she was blaming the guide for the lack of sightings. The mood of the day was quickly deteriorating. As we left the tourist complex, I noticed that our guide was no longer even looking for animals, whether this was because she was jaded by the Swiss woman or whether she knew it was too late and too hot in the day I don’t know. I stared at the horizon even harder, thinking it was perhaps all up to me to salvage this safari, when there was a traffic jam in the road ahead. Several jeeps parked in the same spot seemed promising, but it was only a pair of vultures, the most exciting sight anyone had seen all day.

We prepared to drive around the other cars when someone motioned our guide to look the other way. A female cheetah, in plain sight, was scanning the row of cars with unapologetic boredom. She was lying beneath an acacia tree to shelter from the harsh sun; she yawned while the passengers of our jeep were immediately on alert. When questioned why a cheetah is my favorite of all the African wildlife, it must be because I appreciate their vulnerability and how difficult it is to thrive in their harsh environment. They are constantly on watch for lions and leopards, who wouldn’t hesitate to take out the competition. Because of this, they must hunt during the day when it’s hot and when their prey can see them coming. Built for speed and not stamina, they must be within a close distance before even attempting a hunt so even best-laid plans can be thwarted by warning calls from birds or baboons or a breeze that carries their scent in the wrong direction. And because of this, many of their hunts fail. If they do catch their prey, maybe a tasty gazelle or youthful hartebeest, they must suffocate it first before eating because the kicking hooves of an antelope are dangerous weapons to a fragile cheetah. And THEN if they do catch it and kill it unscathed, they must eat quickly for fear that a hyena, wild dog, lion, leopard or even a baboon may steal it away. Not to mention human conflict with farmers and local communities…all this stress for an adult cheetah and, obviously, a cheetah cub suffers even worse odds with a 70% mortality rate in the wild. It’s a rough life and it would be difficult not to appreciate those who persevere.

We watched our cheetah in the tall grass for a good beat while many of the other vehicles grew bored and drove away. Suddenly, she sat up and, looking to her right, seemed slightly nervous. Then she would look to her left, shoulders hunched, with binocular vision trained on something in the distance. Glancing back to the right, cautiously, then left, hunching again. She repeated this a few more times before she finally committed to her hunch, drawing her slender legs into a full crouch, moving forward. We surmised that perhaps she had a cub to the right and she was waging an internal struggle against leaving her cub versus a possible meal to the left. However, our human eyesight could see neither of these things. She began a wide arc, creeping through the bush while we inched along in our jeep, trying to follow her progress until she disappeared. Effortlessly, she glided like a ghost and occasionally, we could see her spots if only in our imagination. Several hundred meters ahead, some impala were grazing next to the road, completely oblivious to any potential danger. Our guide was impressed. She was sure that our cheetah had seen these impala and was planning to circle around in order to force them onto the road. Hooved feet are not meant for running on asphalt so if our smart girl could force a chase on the road, then she could gain an advantage. We had lost sight of her, but we pulled forward to wait.

New cars were arriving on the scene, but because the cheetah was out of sight they thought we were only admiring the impala. One car drove around us and honked at the impala to get out of the way. Other cars that were more patient going the opposite direction waited for the impala to cross, but without any interest. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but whatever it might be, we were hushed and ripe with anticipation. First, one impala picked her head up, ears perked, sniffing the air. Then, several impala stood perfectly still trying to detect what was happening. Suddenly, everyone was running. Straight across the asphalt, gangly limbs were fleeing for their lives just before the graceful gait of our cheetah appeared out of nowhere. One impala slipped when trying to make a tight turn on the road, but was able to recover in the chaos and the chase continued out of our sight in the bush on the other side. We don’t know if she actually caught an impala that day, but the thrill of the hunt and the chase gave every witness a boost of adrenaline that will be difficult to match.

Two cars that were driving the opposite way pulled forward after the last of the animals were out of the road. One older couple pulled next to us and made a snarky comment about us scaring the impala. We were still breathless and a little in shock after having seen such a lucky sight and they were puzzled by our excitement. Even though they had actually been closer to the chase than we were, they had entirely missed the cheetah because they weren’t expecting her. When we told them what had happened, their jaws hung open in unadulterated disappointment.

Our day was almost over, but from that point on, the landscape came to life. Elephants and a troop of baboons were the standouts on what turned out to be a remarkable day at Kruger National Park.

The next day we drove our safari truck outside of the park on the Panorama Route to see South Africa’s famous Blyde River Canyon, Three Rondavels, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window and Berlin Falls. The Canyon, marked for its stunning views over the Klein Drakensberg escarpment, is crowned by the Three Rondavels, which are pillars of dolomite rock rising from the far wall. Their domed peaks dominate the landscape and it is impressive to be sure.

The Potholes are a geological marvel. Over thousands of years the swirling water has created cylindrical cavities in the red and yellow rock and it was a beautiful place to shield our picnic lunch from bold baboons.

The drive was strikingly beautiful and lived up to its name as the Panorama Route, although God’s Window was a little unremarkable. I guess I’ve found when a landmark claims such a title as God’s Window and your expectations are set as such, said landmark will rarely live up to a lofty name like this. Sorry for being a killjoy, but it was just ok.

The last morning we were scheduled for a bush walk. We were meant to actually walk with armed guards into the park itself, to be one with the natural environment. Nature had other plans. The rain came down in sheets. I could hear it battering the canvas of my tent as I was cozy in my sleeping bag. I was willing someone to tell me if they would be canceling the walk without me going outside. Reluctantly, I donned my raincoat, waterproof pants, and what I learned were not waterproof at all, my new hiking shoes. The only other two campers from my group had decided to skip the walk. It was still dark when I trudged to the lodge to meet the rest of my group that was nowhere to be found. Other people were milling about in various stages of rain gear when I spotted my guide, looking cold and wet. He assured me we would go on as scheduled and the rest of the group was coming. I waited and waited…and waited as other members decided to show up one at a time. Forty five minutes late we finally departed. This group of tourists was truly the worst, not bothering to care or apologize that the guide and me had been standing in the rain.

The heaviest downpour was beginning to subside, but new ponds and torrents of water blocked our progress into the park. We tried several different paths only to be turned around when the water became too deep to wade through. On foot, the bush takes on a whole new character and your senses are heightened with every sound and every movement in your periphery. We didn’t really expect to see any wildlife (or rather hoped we wouldn’t), but it was a unique experience to gain such an intimate perspective of the bushveld. Just before our time was up, we came upon a herd of Cape Buffalo. The Cape Buffalo maintains its place in Africa’s Big Five, but in my opinion, they are the least exciting one to see from a safari vehicle. Barely more than big mean cows, I’ve never been overwhelmed with spotting one, but from the ground and eye-level…that’s intense! I held my breath when the closest bull stopped grazing and stared us down, this gangly group of noisy humans. There’s no sneaking up on anyone when you’re wearing waterproof pants! The bull quickly decided we were too ridiculous to be dangerous and went back to chewing cud.

We returned to camp for a last breakfast of organic eggs and thick cut bacon. The rain had stopped and the humidity was starting to sink in. I had been sleeping in my tent alone for the previous three nights and I had chosen a nice patch under a tree for shade, but when my guide offered to help me break it down I gratefully accepted his help. I stood under the tree, holding up the lowest-hanging branches while he gave the whole tent a sharp tug to move it more into the open. A mere six inches from my feet a mildly venomous red-lipped snake was coiled in the dirt. I jumped backward, obviously, only to bump into the tree and rebound somewhat back in the direction of the snake. While I was being a klutz, the snake now realized that his shelter was gone and he started to stir. Adrenaline-pumping, I finally recovered out of striking distance while the guide was yelling to our other guide/cook to come and identify the snake. With all the commotion, a few people from other camps came closer with cameras ready. Wait…where’s MY camera?? The fact that I had been sleeping with a snake needed to be documented. I bolted back to the truck to get my camera and returned just in time for the snake to panic amidst the paparazzi and disappear into a hole in the ground a few meters away.

South Africa, with all its charms and all its beauty, had truly left an impression on me. It was the first time I felt truly heartbroken about leaving a continent. I wasn’t ready, but I assured myself I would be back one day. There are many challenges to traveling in Africa and dangers, real or perceived, but the previous 4 months with unmatched wildlife encounters and wild beautiful landscapes, friendly people and simple lifestyles made it all worthwhile.

My last two days in Johannesburg were spent working on some technical difficulties and ultimately, buying a new iPad when I couldn’t recover my old one. In what would turn out to be the most dangerous city I visited on my travels so far, I was commuting with the locals to the business district and camped out at the new modern iStore for nearly 8 hours in one day. A TV was turned to CNN International at the mall. I hadn’t watched (or even seen) a television in more than 4 months. It was the 10th of February. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had just unanimously voted to block Mr. Trump’s travel ban. Kellyanne Conway had just pitched Ivanka Trump’s clothing line as if she worked for Home Shopping Network. The Washington Post was reporting that US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was privately discussing US sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador and then lied to the US Vice President about it. And there was also some Presidential tweeting. Thank you, CNN International, for reminding me why I don’t want to go home

Modern Day Rhino Story

Day 704 – 2 February, 2017

One thing you should know about land travel in Zimbabwe is that the police sure do love roadblocks. Besides the standard elephant crossings, which continued all the way back to South Africa, we were frequently stopped by police. Our guide had warned us this was a ubiquitous practice in his country and requested our patience while he navigated the widely-accepted corruption on our way. It is common knowledge that the intention of the roadblocks is to shakedown the public and to elicit bribes for the massively under-funded law enforcement. Our monster safari truck full of western tourists was no exception and no doubt police payoffs are factored into the price of a safari in Zimbabwe. Usually the police would issue a citation for something benign and require a fine to be paid on the scene before returning the driver’s license. All of our stops were taken in stride, money exchanged and went off without incident, but this isn’t always the case. The country’s citizens completely lack respect for the police as a result and would often drive away from roadblocks rather than stopping and playing through the charade. To stop people from driving away, the police set up spikes in the road and the escalation of tension continues with aggressive fighting and sometimes violence.

By the time we arrived to Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, we were ready to stretch our legs. Our truck parked in town so we could patronize the supermarket and stock up on supplies. I needed insect repellent, which was surprisingly difficult to find in a country boasting a high statistic of malaria. After checking a few stores with no luck, my guide escorted me to a pharmacy a few blocks away. They had the South African brand, Peaceful Sleep, in a small roll-on stick displayed behind a glass case so that we had to engage the sales clerk in order to retrieve it. The woman spoke English, as does most everyone in Zimbabwe, but she spoke to my guide in her local language while she retrieved the roll-on stick and presented it to me as if she was displaying fine jewels. They exchanged a few words and then my dejected guide muttered a quiet apology to me as the woman proudly announced a $5 price tag. I paid it as she wrapped up the stick in double plastic bags and bid us good day. I can only speculate that we were on the losing end of an insect repellent price negotiation. On our walk back toward the truck, my guide repeatedly assured me that I had overpaid just in case clarification was still necessary.

We were staying at a boutique hotel in Bulawayo, rather than camping. The rooms were relatively modern and set around a garden courtyard. It had an inviting swimming pool to cool off from the humid climate. The plan was to visit Matobo National Park, a short drive to the south. Named for the Matobo Hills, stacked granite rock outcroppings, the park has earned UNESCO status for its large protected area of breeding rhinoceros. We were 100% guaranteed the opportunity to walk with rhinos.

One of the great debates in Southern Africa of modern times is about legalizing the sale of rhino horn. Rhino horn is made of keratin, essentially the same material as found in fingernails and hair. If cut, it will regenerate in some period of time so is potentially a renewable resource. Unfortunately, it’s far easier and more lucrative for poachers to kill a rhinoceros and take the horn illegally. Opponents of legalization would like to eradicate the demand for rhino horn, most of which originates in China, Vietnam, and other southeast Asian countries. They believe that the only way to save the rhino is to impose stiff penalties of fines, jail, and/or death for the poachers responsible. If rhino horn were legalized and harvested in a safe and humane manner, then it would become more difficult to distinguish the difference between legal and illegal rhino horn.

Proponents of legalization acknowledge the fact that the demand is likely to never go away. Rhino horn has been used in traditional medicine as a treatment for anything from cancer to erectile dysfunction since the dawn of time and trying to convince billions of people that they might as well consume their own fingernails is a losing battle. Proponents argue that flooding the market with legal rhino horn will actually bring down the cost and poaching will become a less lucrative business. Rhino farms already exist in several countries, but no decision has been reached on whether rhino horn can yet be sold legally.

In Botswana and Zimbabwe, anti-poaching units are authorized to shoot-to-kill if a suspected poacher is spotted within a national park. In South Africa and Namibia, the business is far more dangerous because an anti-poaching unit can only shoot if they have been fired upon first, which is rarely the position a park ranger wants to find themselves in. I arrived in Africa as a strong opponent to legalization of rhino horn, but after meeting Rudy and Marlice Van Vuuren in Namibia and our Matobo guide in Zimbabwe (all conservationists and passionate proponents of legalization), I see the merits of this position. Much of what I knew about conservation came from reading western publications and literature paid for by US or UK-backed organizations. While I do believe that these organizations mean well, I no longer believe it’s helpful for someone sitting in a tiny office in New York City to decide what’s best for a national park in Zimbabwe. The opinions and the experience of those working with the animals on the ground are definitely valuable and should be the basis for the ongoing battle to save endangered species. Westerners don’t always know what’s best.

Matobo National Park can guarantee rhino sightings because, for 24 hours a day, every rhino in the park is followed by an armed guard. We only had to call a ranger on the radio, obtain their position, and off we went for our chance to walk with one of the most endangered species on the planet. The jeep was equipped with a jump seat in the front of the hood and Emil rode first, taking in the scenery without the encumbrance of doors or a roof. Our first stop was an adult female and a young calf, who were a little skittish of our large group, not allowing us to get very close. Never fear, we called a second ranger for their position. During my turn to ride in the jump seat, of course, the rain poured down in sheets and I acted as windshield for the rest of the passengers. But it was fantastic to see the park from this perspective in spite of the rain dripping from my nose. For the second stop, we parked on the dirt road and had to walk quite a distance through scrub brush and thorns, keeping an eye out for snakes. Our guide was tall and lean with leathery tan skin. He wore shorts and sports sandals and chain-smoked the whole day, not the least bit bothered when a two-inch long thorn stabbed him in the leg.

When we finally reached our new family of rhinos, there were approximately 4 adults, peacefully grazing. Now we could finally get a good look. All of their horns had been carefully removed so as to deter poachers and without them, they looked like prehistoric cows. They weren’t bothered by us at all and if anything, seemed relaxed when they recognized our guide as a friend. I had the same excited feeling as the day when I ran with the cheetah at N/a’an ku se, knowing this was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity and reinforcing my drive to want to protect such majestic creatures.

We then climbed one of the Matobo Hills to see if we could garner the position of even a third group, which we eventually spotted near the park entrance. Our time in the park was drawing to a close when the sun was dropping low in the sky and the location of these rhinos, so close to the road, worried our guide as he called for backup for their protection in the dark.

Matobo was a highlight on a tour full of other highlights so I was personally a little burnt out by the time we reached the Great Zimbabwe Ruins the next day. I recognize that it was of political significance during medieval times, that it was originally constructed by the native Shona people, and that the buildings fell into disuse in the 15th century after trade declined and environmental changes made the area less desirable. Beyond that, I found it difficult to pay attention to our soft-spoken guide in the arid heat. Nevertheless, these ruins are by far the largest of their kind anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. For a region of the world not often associated with ruins, I was impressed.

As our journey was drawing to a close, we would spend our last night in Tshipse, South Africa. Of course, this meant that we would have to cross one more land border. This one could take anywhere from one to eight hours because of the large volume of commercial shipping between South Africa and Zimbabwe and the high level of potential bribery negotiations that might take place. As luck would have it, we were not intensely inspected and it took us only one hour to pass immigration. We were left with a good chunk of time to enjoy the manmade hot springs at our new camp ground.

Liz decided to splurge on a brick and mortar room for her last night and was kind of enough to invite me to share. The grounds were packed full with holidaying drunken South Africans, enjoying the pools of varying temperatures. A family of mongoose pilfered grubs and lizards from the lawn surrounding the cottages and our final evening’s braii (a South African bbq) went well into the wee hours of the morning. I had one more adventure left in me to go to Kruger National Park for a few days before I left the continent, but meanwhile, I reflected on all of the amazing experiences in Africa over the previous 4 months and was already scheming on a chance to return.