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.

The Kalahari

Day 694 – 23 January, 2017

One of the most obscene wastings of food I have ever witnessed occurred on the border between South Africa and Botswana. Earlier that morning I left from a lovely boutique hotel in northern Johannesburg on a Nomad Africa camping safari with 14 others, including Tomas from Chicago, Liz the American living in Istanbul, Emil and Elin from Sweden, Michael and Julia from Australia, 4 Brazilians, a mother and son duo from Belgium, John from Australia, and Paola from Holland.

The truck was almost identical to the one that we had used in Kenya and Uganda three months earlier. Our guide was Amen, Doc was our driver, and Clever was our cook. They were all natives of either Zimbabwe or Zambia and worked really well as a team, hilarious and great fun all around. Our very first day we would be crossing the border to Botswana so we stopped at a supermarket just before the border to gather some supplies, including all of the food that we would need for the next several days of camping – fresh produce like oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, and onions and animal items like chicken, eggs, and milk. In addition, the passengers were also encouraged to buy any alcoholic beverages that we wished and other personal snack items. In hindsight, it’s kind of funny how much we bought personally, as if we would never see another supermarket. I think it was about three days until we stopped again.

Before leaving the parking lot, Amen warned us that we would have to hide everything for fear that it would be confiscated at the border. He told us that Botswana imports almost all of their produce from South Africa; however, it can only come in with a permit which he did not have. They stashed all of our alcohol, fruit, and a couple of other produce items in a bin in the far back of the truck. He said that they rarely looked that hard and we should be fine. I was about to get my first real introduction into African politics.

Our passports stamped, the only thing preventing us from continuing our journey was a luggage inspection. Amen opened up the storage compartments and immediately the officials began taking all of our produce – the items that weren’t hidden away – and throwing them in a bin. Most of the conversation happened in the local language and we only observed from inside the truck, but from what we could gather, the list of restricted goods had recently changed and now there were several new items that were not permitted. Our stowed goods were not noticed and were left alone. From the safety of the truck, we surmised that the officials just wanted to take our food home to their families or else were expecting a bribe. Either way would be a benefit to their cause. But with 15 foreigners on the truck and about 5 officials gathering at the spectacle, there were too many people to bribe and there was nothing left to do but to ruin the lot of it. They took all of our meat, eggs, produce and bread and proceeded to pour the milk all over it in a large plastic bin. I still kind of hope someone went through it and was able to salvage some edible items, but it wasn’t us. We were sent on our way without proper food, although there was enough alcohol for a small army that we secretly got to keep.

Luckily edible leaves were plenty so we would not starve even though our food was confiscated. Also, this photo demonstrates that I was at the stage of travel where I never looked in a mirror.
As I write this now, I googled the allowable produce because I couldn’t remember the details of what was taken. The government site for Botswana does indicate that the list changes frequently because of current disease outbreaks, but it also indicates an allowable amount per person that far exceeds what we could possibly have had in rations. This is Africa, folks, warts and all.

Our first day was a driving day to our destination near Kang, Botswana. We set up camp behind a petrol station and ate in the restaurant attached to it. It was our first opportunity to get to know each other without the noise on the truck. We organically and loosely separated into two smaller groups – the Americans, the Swedes, and the Aussies in one group with the Brazilians, the Belgians, and Paola in the other. This was somewhat based on age demographic and ability to speak English, whereas John the jokester kind of bridged the gap between both groups with his tiresome rhetoric. Only some of us were camping while a few were staying in accommodated rooms, which further served to join us or separate us in a different way.

Tomas, originally from Mexico, was currently living in Chicago and it had been ages since I had met someone from my hometown so he and Liz and I became good friends. Liz had been teaching English in various places, but most recently had been teaching and living in Istanbul where she met and married her Turkish husband. Elin and Emil, traveling together as friends just before he was on his way to study in Australia, were dubbed the Swedish Mafia for a reason that I can’t recall. And Julia and Michael were newly dating and were both very photogenic.

Elin and Emil – obviously Elin is thinking about the fact that we have no food
Tomas, Liz, and I
Julia and Michael
The following day we continued driving deeper into the Kalahari Desert until we reached a remote camp. The threat of rain was imminent so we rushed to set up camp when we arrived. Liz and I had placed our rain cover and were prepared by the time the rains came. The other campers were falsely confident and had to run to take care of it at the last minute. A storm in the desert comes in with violence and anger and departs just as abruptly with a whisper. The sun returned.

We went for a bush walk with a traditional Kalahari bushman, who showed us signs of tracks and scat and how they identify the species. He showed us plants that are edible and those used for healing. He showed us how to hunt with poison arrows and how to make a fire. He even showed us a juicy green caterpillar that is considered a delicacy in the Kalahari diet. And he did all this while wearing animal skin briefs and carrying a jackal satchel for his bow and arrows. It was a bit put on for our benefit – many of the Kalahari bushmen no longer wear this costume, favoring instead western-type clothing. And many of them now supplement their diet with supermarket goods, but some hearty souls are trying to keep the traditions alive.

After it had grown dark, we were to meet at the main lodge where our accommodated friends were staying so we could walk to a fire dance ceremony together. It was pitch black and we brought our head torches for guidance. The dance was incredible to watch. Approximately twenty men and women danced to songs played on reed or wooden instruments, songs with names like “The Hunt” and “Rain.” They would slowly move in a circle and then it would increase in speed, but their movements were generally always the same. At some point, we became aware that Paola was there and she was NOT happy. Apparently, she had been left behind at the lodge and had to struggle to find her way in the dark to the bonfire. She was not only angry with her guides, but also with every one of us, and she was not shy about letting us know. She refused to speak to any of us for the next couple of days. In truth, I felt bad for her. She didn’t speak English well and she was trying to navigate between lots of different accents. We tried to apologize, yet she was having none of it.

John, who was never to be taken seriously, had a joke about everything. It was charming at first, although it became clear that he needed a purpose so we assigned him to watch out for Paola to make sure she wasn’t to get lost again. We were also hoping it would help him stick to our time schedule. When we were intended to depart at 7:00am, for example, knowing that we would have an 8 hour drive (or more!) ahead of us and the rest of us were ready and sitting in the truck, John would casually stroll up several minutes late and tell us he had forgotten his hat or his book and needed to go back to get it. It was beginning to feel like we were herding cats – wet and wild desert cats, but cats nevertheless.

I’m pretty sure this is me examining some poo and trying to identify the wildlife. Photo by Liz