August 27, 2013

Day 19 (possibly threatening interlopers)

We all have lists of some sort (probably not on paper for most normal people, although I do keep one in a GoogleDoc) of things that make us happy.  That is, the things we know that make us happy.  But there is (there must be) a much much longer list of things we don't know that make us happy.  The native Hawaiian who may never know how much she loves playing ice hockey.  The Alaskan who won't ever know his passion for surfing.  The ground-bound cocker spaniel who will never ever realize his fondness for flying.  

Which is all to say (this is going somewhere, I promise), that I never knew the joys of not dismantling a tent at 5 or 6am in the morning until today.  

Even though it's something I've done (or not done, as it were) almost every day of my life for the past 3 decades.  But, wow, now I know how great it is.  Instead of breaking camp, we woke early to do another game walk through the Okavango Delta, which kicked off with a quick mokoro shuttle across the waterhole backed by the pre-sunshine colors of early morning.  

Transit shuttle

Walking from pre- to post-dawn through the delta, the animals wouldn't let us get as close as they will when you're in a safari truck.  Nor will they let you get as close as the animals on Crescent Island.  You also can't cover as much ground on foot as you can in a truck, so you see fewer highlights.

Okavango Delta

However, a game walk gives you a much better perspective for animals in their natural habitat, which doesn't naturally include humans poking around.  Viewing us as confusing and possibly threatening interlopers, zebra converge into a self-camouflaging pack.  Giraffe gallop away with their children in tow.  Buffalo stampede.  Like, really stampede.

Experiencing an African buffalo stampede, while on foot in the middle of the most remote wilderness, was the coolest and simultaneously most frightening thing I saw here in the Delta.  First, you may see the herd through the trees.  But you may not- only hearing their thunder.  You can feel the ground rumble.  Birds fly up out of the trees.  Treetops shake.  A cloud of dust starts to rise, and then it spreads.  And you look around to see what you might be able to climb if they come at you; vulnerable in a way that we rarely (if ever) are this century.  

Okavango Delta

The rest of the day was spent idling at camp.  Eating pancakes, reading in the sun, trying a second time at poling the mokoros, taking a dip in the watering hole.  

Much improved skills during round 2

And in the late afternoon, we all took to the water to enjoy a boating sunset.

After returning to dusk by nightfall, we sat around the fire and shared songs and dance from everyone's home-country.    

Thus, with flames, music and groovy moves, we said goodbye to the Okavango.

August 12, 2013

Day 18 (into the Okavango)

We've come to what feels like it must be the most remote place in the world, the Okavango Delta, Botswana.  From our last campsite it took us a two hour drive and an hour being pulled past tufts of reeds in traditional dug-out mokoro boats.     

Not just for tourist-based novelty, all of our food, water, tents and other camping gear also had to be packed into the mokoros to carry it to the camp. 

Poling tents and chairs to camp

While arguably simple, the mokoro ride into the Okavango Delta ranks in my top two trip highlights (tied with cheetah cubs attacking our truck in the Serengeti), and is unequivocally one of the best things I've ever done.  To be gliding through those amazing rivlets and islands, in the heart of Botswana, pushed past the reeds, water lillies, and tall grasses by a traditional poler, was incredible.  Lying back on a bed of hay, hardly a ripple in the water, it's the most peaceful feeling I've had in a long time.  

Gliding past lily pads


Feet up

Crossing a hippo family

"Poling" is different from canoeing or kayaking, in that there's a long stick (a pole, if you will) instead of paddles, which is pushed against the shallow marsh floor to power and steer.  I later tried to do some of the poling myself and was complete rubbish (no strength, no balance, no steering acumen).  

I improved on day 2

Our campsite is completely in the bush, a clearing on the delta drylands, with no electricity or running water.  Bathing can be done in a local watering hole where animals come to drink.  Since arriving, about a dozen wild elephants trotted past our site.  

As such, there's a 3-step procedure for if you need to use the bathroom or otherwise leave your tent in the middle of the night:
  1. Listen for sounds (if any sounds, stay inside and hold it!)
  2. If no sounds, open your tent and shine a flashlight out, looking for reflective eyes (if any eyes, stay inside and hold it!)
  3. If no eyes, step outside the tent and shine your light 360-degrees, looking for reflective eyes (if any eyes, get back inside and hold it!).  If no eyes, you're free to proceed.  
Sitting in a folding chair, looking across the water

Just within the first 30 hours, Botswana has been near perfect.  The country produces 22% of the world's diamonds, and yet has been internationally rated as Africa's least corrupt country since its independence.  The president has made a point to re-invest Botswana's diamond wealth into education, health, and infrastructure, the last of which is clearly evident in the well-paved roads.  

And the first gas station we pulled into had overhead speakers playing Queen.  

We had the world's friendliest immigration agent at our boarder crossing who asked us to be quiet by saying, "Please reduce your voices... I want to be the only one making noise!"  With a massive grin and belly chuckle.  From the first moments, driving through Botswana felt more like the Africa that I'm used to than South Africa or Namibia.  Donkeys by the side of the road and kids running in colorful clothes.  The landscape, while more dense in foliage than Kenya, is reminiscent of a game drive up towards Naivasha.

And the Baobab trees have begun.  

So, at peace in the delta, we ended our first day with a game-walk.  

Elephant tracks

Termite mound

Game walkers in the sun

Goodnight world.

August 4, 2013

Day 16 (this is overlanding)

Journal from this day:
We're sitting in folding chairs, in some long dry grasses on the side of the road, somewhere in Nowhere Namibia.  Two hours outside of Etosha, 20km away from the next town.  Our truck has been broken down on the side of the road for the last several hours.  In another few minutes, it will be noon and the shade will disappear, leaving us vulnerable in direct Namibian sun.  A few mechanics have come and gone, trucks and cars honk as they drive by- I suspect in solidarity, though it really sounds more like mocking.  This is overlanding in Africa.  

Broken down
Photo-credit: Irina Chernetskya

But playing cards in the fresh air and sunshine isn't all that bad.  And if it were going to happen, today is the right day- a throwaway  day of sleeping in the bus as we spend some 12 or more hours inching closer to the Botswana boarder.

August 3, 2013

Days 14-15 (for full digestion)

We did our first game drive today, in Etosha National Park, which (as I wrote at the time) "was rather anticlimactic compared to other drives I've done in Amboseli and Soysambu."  Which is really just a muted way of saying: It kind of sucked.  

Sure, we saw some elephants and giraffes, though those are hardly novel.  (Even the URL of this blog says I live in Kenya.  We have traffic jams caused by lions). 

To solve the controversy of whether pictures are better with or without safari vehicles.  Answer: WITH!  Look at how close we are!

Not to sound ungrateful, that is.  Usually game drives are amazing no matter if you see a liger or not.  Just being out in the great wild open, standing up in the truck and surfing the bumps with safari air blowing past.  Feeling unthethered.  But the feeling is a bit different on our huge truck with 25 other people.  No open roof.  No peace and quiet.  No feelings of comfortable anonymity, being adrift in the vast expanse, insignificant and invincible all wrapped into one.  

But I did learn that a group of zebra can either be called a "herd" (boring) or a "dazzle" (AMAZING!), which is definitely something worth knowing. (Fun Fact #1)

Part of a dazzle, watering themselves with some Springbok

But day 2 of game driving elevated everything to a whole other level- the superlative level.  Best day yet!

First thing in the morning, we saw three black rhinos (Big 5, check) out of only 4,000 left in the entire world.  

Black rhinos in Etosha

Fun fact #2: Black rhinos are not black, nor are white rhinos white.  Among some of the notable differences between them, black rhinos have prehensile lips for eating from trees (browsing), while white rhinos have square lips for grazing.  The two horns are closer in size on a black rhino than a white rhino.  Black rhino moms run in front of their children to clear the path, and white rhino moms run behind the children to prevent attacks from the rear.  None of which really matters when a rhino is charging at you.  But prehensile lips!  That's pretty fun.  Prehensile.

Two of the three rhinos (a mom and child) ran off when we pulled up, and then got so blustered and bothered by being followed that they turned a sharp right angle and mock-charged our truck.

Black rhinos charging us!

I also saw a Springbok pronking! (You should really watch this video with springbok pronking to music from The Nutcracker. Pronking starts at about 0:55, music starts at about 1:27, but it gets really good at 1:46).  It's a warning signal they send to the rest of the herd by bouncing vertically as though their hooves were fit with springs.  

Fun Fact #3 (learning is fun, y'all!): Springbok and other antelope with 4 chambers in their stomachs do something called "ruminating."  They consume food very quickly into their 1st chamber.  Evolutionarily, eating fast is a benefit because meal times are some of your most vulnerable.  So they wolf it down (colloquially) as fast as they can, as much food as they can muster.  Then, later in the day when they have more time without the threat of predators, they lie down to burp up the food and re-chew it before swallowing it down to the lower stomach chambers for full digestion.  That's ruminating.  Exactly as people do when they ruminate on ideas: re-visiting something in a preliminary chamber of the mind to re-chew it for full digestion.  

And that was all before lunch.  At lunch, we saw an amazing waterhole (Harare) where there were families of elephants with their babies who faced off with en earless black rhino for territory.  

And this is when I began to love rhinos.  In all honesty, rhinos were never much on my radar.  But seeing this poor guy trying to get a drink of water, but being intimidated away by an elephant family... it made my heart break for the unexpected underdog.  Such a profound loneliness played out on a real-life stage, and adorable baby elephants perceived as bullies.  

And I thought (with over-anthropomorphism), Rhino, you will suffer for being who you are. Who you will always be.  And there is no way around that.  

Trying to blend in

Finally here, tentatively

And then by evening, we sat by another swampy watering hole where we watched birds swooping up mosquitoes from sunset to dusk, then looked up to notice that first star, and just above it the crescent moon.  

(Fun Fact #4: A group of giraffes can be called a "tower" or a "journey."  Hooray!)  

N.B. Fun Facts come to you courtesy of Mat Dry, tour guide extraordinaire