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Three days in Africa

I've started writing this on our last night at Chobe Safari Lodge, and outside the window of our "rondavel" (a circular cabin with a conical thatched roof) are two Warthogs, trimming the grass.  Their necks are so thick that they need to kneel on their forelegs to graze, giving rise to the saying that warthogs always pray for their dinners.  The evening mongooses have not yet made their appearance, and the morning monkeys are probably over by the dining terrace ready for whatever good fortune may await them, be it food or belongings left unattended by unwary guests - maybe some for whom English is not well understood.  If they can read English, they would notice the many signs around the lodge grounds stating that management will not be responsible for possessions stolen by monkeys.  According to Miriam my camera was nearly taken yesterday morning when I went off for more coffee.  First New York cabs, now Botswanan monkeys.  Cripes.

It's been three days of sensory overload that taxes the term "sensory overload."  We're both struggling with how to put our feelings and thoughts into some kind of reasonable order - for myself my mind is bouncing all the time between visions of Zambian roadside huts and an old cinema in central Livingstone called something like The Empire with a date of 1935 over it; the sights and smells of the Zambezi River, experienced much more closely than we would have dreamed; of trucks full of smiling uniformed kids on nature drives; on the scent of a dead elephant being eaten by crocodiles at the river's edge; of Botswanan soldiers in boats guarding a tour barge carrying the President of Mozambique, gawking at the hippos and elephants the same as the kids from California on our boat.  Storks and eagles and Impala and bumblebees the size of birds.  The first vertebrate we encountered in Chobe National Park was a vivid green Boomslang in the middle of the road - a beautiful, six-foot long snake that rates three stars out of three on the "kill you quick" scale. It all makes for serious overload - too many images, not enough brain. 

Maybe best to do it more or less in chronological order.

Thursday, 18 August 

Plane lands - not the plane we thought we would be taking; that one was canceled - at Livingstone airport, comprising a couple of low buildings next to a mostly empty parking lot.  The heat hits us - it's maybe around 85F, 33C, but dry.  Late winter weather.   

Visas must be purchased, even though we'll be in Zambia for all of an hour or so, making our way to the Botswana border, but no, you must have transit visas, US$40 each, or its equivalent in… er, US dollars.  

We pass through the customs hall with our freshly glued-in visas, and there is our driver for the transfer to the lodge.  Actually, it turns out he will be taking us only to the river; on the other side we will be met by his Botswanan counterpart who will take us to the lodge. 

We are accompanied by an Australian couple who were on the same flight as us the day before; they've returned (fourth time) to Botswana to visit their daughter and son-in-law, who have been living in Kasane, the town where our lodge is located, for some years, but who will be returning to Sydney soon, or so the mother hopes.   

The road from the airport passes through Livingstone, dusty and a little disheveled looking but busy and with a rough open market selling trinkets, some commercial and government offices, billboards for banks and home improvement stores, some paved streets but not many.  A lot of billboards exhorting safe sex and combating the spread of HIV.   

But quickly we're out and into the countryside.  Women are walking roadside balancing various parcels on their heads.  Children smile and waive at the minibus; solitary young men and women glance at us and keep walking.  There are goats.  Banana plantations.  Red-clay soil with enormous termite mounds everywhere.  Off the side of the road are houses ranging from cement block with electrical wires hitting them to thatched pole-constructions that are either for the poorest of the poor, or else temporary structures or shelters for livestock, one hopes.  You are in the Third World and no mistake. 

The countryside is gently rolling, brown-to-red, with bare Baobab trunks tapering into majestic, chaotic branching.  The road is paved and in good repair.  There's an unused rail line paralleling it, reportedly closed once the lumber mill (teak) that was its justification closed some years ago.  First twang of political thought. 

And then, maybe 45 minutes later, we approach a cluster of parked trucks and people milling about and there ahead of us is a wide river, with two yellow-colored open ferries moored, one loading, the other offloading from the looks of things.  This is the Zambezi, which a few dozen kilometers downstream will become all kinetic energy and spray at Victoria Falls; here it's a broad, island-filled watercourse, almost a delta from the look of things.  The ferry is at the junction of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers; an island half a mile upstream marks a joint boundary between four countries - Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia.  The Caprivi Strip, a long tentacle of Namibia, separates this part of Botswana from Angola, the fifth country in the immediate neighborhood.  This chaos of natural features combined with the chaos (or was it cunning, or was it hubris?) of colonial Europe has left an enduring mark on the land and the people in these parts.  Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, Brits - everybody wanted a piece of the action, whether it was geopolitics or gold or, in the case of Botswana, diamonds.  I remember as a young stamp collector looking at pictures of the Girl Queen on stamps of the early 1950s from places like Bechuanaland or Rhodesia and Nyasaland; or of older stamps from Südwest Afrika.  Always with animals on them, or etchings of mines, or native peoples doing National Geographic things.  It all comes roaring back. 

Passengers will please refrain...

Next to the ferry landing (to call it a dock is an overstatement) is a collection of small buildings that comprise Zambian immigration and customs.  We enter one of them and a smiling lady keeps up her rapid conversation with her co-worker as the two of them thunk our passports with exit stamps with barely a glance.  We go back outside and to the ferry dock to wait our turn to cross the river into Botswana.  A bridge is proposed here, and another farther upstream, but things between Zambia and Botswana in this neighborhood have been strained of late, partly over the flow of illegal immigrants from poor Zambia into relatively prosperous Botswana.  So no bridge just now.  Boats. 

Our Australian companions are met at river's edge by their daughter, who has landed in Zambia off a skiff but who has to stay next to the river to avoid Zambian immigration, i.e., visa fee.  We meet her and she insists that we accompany her and her parents across the river rather than ride the ferry.  Reason being, she reports the ferry has capsized a couple of times in the past years, with considerable loss of life, partly from drowning, partly from consumption.  By crocodiles. Uh, er, okay, so we pile into the boat, bags in the middle, me (stupidly) letting everyone else get in first, then I climb in the bow, making the pushback from the beach pretty strenuous for our (previous) shuttle driver and a pal of his who's suddenly materialized.  But we finally get underway and we're buzzing across the Zambezi, getting spray in the face, seeing other small boats, a couple being powered by push-poles, hugging the shore where we are told one must not place one's hands in the water lest one withdraw a non-hand.  Right.  Welcome to Africa. 

The far bank is reached, our friends' son-in-law is there; he phones our lodgings and they immediately dispatch a jeep to meet us.  We wait beside the riverbank for a while, noting that the ferry on the opposite shore - the one we would have ridden - has yet to depart, so in all things have worked out okay.   

Presently a Land Cruiser turns up, and we pile in for the 30-second drive to Botswana immigration and customs, where more examination and stamping occurs (this time no fees, though) and then out to the road. 

The first impression is that Botswana indeed seems to have made more investment in infrastructure - the road is good, the roadside houses are far less temporary and rough looking than their Zambian counterparts.  Then we pass the grandiose entrance to the Mowana Lodge, (Mowana being the local name for the Baobab tree) then the town of Kasane is reached - bustling, shops looking pretty full of goods.  The Chobe Marina Lodge (which we investigated) is right in the middle of things; then we arrive at the Chobe Safari Lodge on the outskirts of town. 

The lodge is a large collection of thatched buildings comprising an office/gift shop/reception area, a large restaurant/bar/"hotel" building containing some conventional hotel rooms; a big open-air patio overlooking the river and adjacent to the pool where all lunches and evening meals are served; and a collection of "rondavels," the mid-range accommodation offered by the lodge.  Somewhere nearby is a campground, also run by the lodge.

Our checkin is relatively straightforward, and we are told to go to our rondavel, following our porter, a "traditionally built" woman (Miriam has absorbed all of the "Number One Ladies' Detective Agency" books, set in Botswana, in which that term plays a prominent role.)   

The room is very basic but clean; twin beds, an okay bathroom; no air conditioning but a ceiling fan, mosquito netting over the bed.  Electric teapot with bags, coffee, etc. 

Our bags stowed, we decide to head to the bar for a cold one or eight, but stop short at the doorway because there are a dozen or so really evil-looking creatures running on our walkway and the lawn between us and beer.  I recognize them as mongooses (not "mongeese.")  Down there beyond the trees a large pig-shaped animal is grazing in front of another rondavel.  Warthog. 

The mongooses skedaddle as we make for the bar.  The beer is cold and reasonably priced; the other guests appear mainly to be Spanish and Italian (evidently the lodge markets relatively heavily in those countries) as well as South Africans.  One or two other American accents present, comprising a group of middle-aged ladies (also traditionally built) who are puzzled by the lack of 7-Up at the bar.   

We sit on the terrace watching the sun set across the river - the opposite bank is Namibia.  Miriam glances down the river and there in the twilight is an elephant, grazing at the river edge a half a mile or so from the bar.  An elephant.  Far out. 

Dinner is served buffet-style outdoors, and is interrupted by a power outage that lasts for 20 minutes or so until the lodge staff can get the auxiliary generator working.  It powers the bar, the computers, and enough other circuits so that dinner can proceed, however none of the guest rooms are powered, so we have to wait for the mains to come back on after an hour or so before we can head to bed - not about to walk through snake country in the dark thank you.  As for the meal, it's plentiful but not very distinguished - chicken, some fish I've never heard of, things like that, plus the compulsory platters of game that you pay thousands to see in the wild then eat that night.  Not.  It seems to have limited appeal even to the Euros, who seem (here's a broad generalization) to have more interest in such things than most Americans. 

Sleep comes rather slowly - we are still quite jet-lagged from the previous day's Antarctic passage (which by this point seems like a century before) but also our heads are spinning, full of images that are elbowing one another nonstop in the "No, me - I'm more amazing" competition.  There are things crying in the night outside, including something that sounds like a crying infant in real distress.  Baboons, we learn later.  Africa. 

Friday, 19 August 

We had been offered the opportunity to join the 6 am game drive but respectfully declined; instead we are booked for the 10 am drive, which allows us time to get cleaned up (pretty grimy from the previous day) and have an excellent breakfast on the lodge's café terrace.  Monkeys are present, so we need to run shuttle service to the buffet lines lest items of value end up in simian possession.  The birds are also amazing - brightly plumed almost-robins, egrets and fish eagles over the river - itself busy with boats carrying locals to market… 

At quarter to ten we present ourselves at the reception and are directed to a Land Cruiser manned by a nice guy named Odi - he will be our guide today (and though we don't know it yet, tomorrow too.)  A German family of three joins us in the 12-seater, and then it's off down the road 5 km to the Chobe National Park entrance.  Odi gives a head count and nationality census to the gate keepers, then we enter the park. 

We've gone around ¼ mile into the park when Odi slams on the brakes and points to the road ten feet in front of the jeep.  A bright green snake, around six feet long, is crossing the road. 

"Boomslang," he says.  Two venoms - one neuromuscular, the other respiratory-suppressing.  "You die two ways, very fast."   

The snake passes into the dry grass at the edge of the road.  Hmmm. Scratch the bushwalk. Later we see a chart back at the lodge that lists snakes by toxicity; our green friend rates three red dots out of a maximum of three, right up there with various Mambas and cobras. 

The road is suitable only for the most robust of 4WD vehicles, consisting mainly of deep sand that I presume becomes astonishingly goopy mud given a little rain.  We pass along past dry trees, infinite termite mounds, brush and thicket and thorns that would have you trapped and lead to you starving to death long before the Boomslang found you.   

Brakes.  "Over there," Odi says, pointing to another bunch of dry brush.  "Impala."  

We discern around 20 small antelope, with the characteristic black "M" around the tail. It's a breeding herd; we learn that all the females are pregnant and will deliver around October.  Odi points out (apparently this is known throughout the antelope-loving community everywhere) that the "M" on the Impala's bum is the same shape as the McDonald's logo, hence the term "fast food" for the lions. (We later learn back in South Africa that lions are not especially fond of Impala in many areas because they're too small for the effort - Kudu and Wildebeest being a more cost-effective prey.) 

And so it goes for another 45 minutes.  Bounce, drive, bounce.  Brakes, engine off.  Sable Antelope.  Warthogs.  Kudu, with their amazing spiral antlers.  

And then we come around a corner near the riverbank and nearly rear-end another truck parked, whereupon we watch around 50 elephant, mothers, babies, juveniles…all parading in front of us from the mud back into the bush, in varying states of gray and black depending on how dry the mud has gotten since the wallow shortly before. 

We are transfixed; surrounded by elephants - snorting, a few minor hoots, plodding.  They are 15 or twenty feet from us; the babies are surrounded by the females (there are no males in breeding herds, instead they are led by a "matriarch") - oblivious to the vehicles and the dozen or so snapping, gawking tourists. 

And so it goes for the next two hours.  More elephants, hippos standing behind.  A young crocodile is basking on the river's edge.  Cranes, storks… we are shown the beautiful Violet Breasted Roller, Botswana's national bird because the underside of its wings, in flight, mimic the blue-and-black striped national flag.  Guinea fowl, their heads peacock blue, scamper ahead and aside the jeep.  Protected, they are called "government chickens" and apparently occasionally end up on dinner tables despite the prohibition. 

We see more antelope and kin, lots more elephants (there are reportedly 70,000 in the Park); and eventually it's time to head back to the lodge.  In the morning before our departure we have booked an afternoon boat cruise on the river, where we are told we'll see more elephants, hippos, etc.; the game drive returns and gives us around an hour and a half to download photos, try for a rapid recharge on the old camera batteries, and then get to the bar in time for a coke or a beer before the 3 pm boat departure.  

The boat - a two-pontoon job with a big covered deck and a small and rather flimsy-looking upper deck (unshaded - no way) holds maybe 50 or 60 people, and it's quite full as we board.  We end up sitting among another American family - mom, dad, four kids, mother in law - who are making a four month tour of Africa - the logistics boggles the mind. 

The narration on the boat is nowhere near as comprehensive or knowledgeable as Odi's from the morning, but little is needed as we round various bends and behold dozens of pairs of hippo eyes following us; scores of elephants at water's edge or on an island contested between Botswana and Namibia.  We pull up to the island shore so that the noses of the pontoons are almost aground and there is an enormous crocodile sunning itself.  It turns and looks lazily at us, then turns back, opens its jaws in the scariest yawn I've ever beheld, then resumes doing what crocs do, which, I gather, is pretty much nothing except occasional insane violence.  I had wanted to see crocodiles in Australia but Miriam had not been keen; the balance sheet is now quite in order. 

We pull back into the main channel and a couple of motorboats pass us, each containing around 10 men in green uniforms accompanied by maybe 30 guns of the repeating-fire variety; then we veer away from a large white barge, about the size of ours, but with 20 or so people on it, some in suits (it is around 90 degrees.)  We are instructed not to photograph the soldiers nor the barge, but some sneak some photos anyway; the photographers on the white barge have no such compunctions about photographing us, which they do incessantly, smiling and waving as they fire away. 

We learn later that it was the President of Mozambique, and maybe some other local heads of state, junketing from an all-ministers meeting somewhere close by.  So not just gringos staring at the beasts. 

We resume cruising through various channels and sloughs, seldom out of sight of quite astonishing displays of wildlife - elephants, hippos, buffalo, baboons, birds...

The cruise lasts until sunset, a red-ball-sinking-behind-the-trees affair that looks like every Africa movie you've ever seen; we are watching a continuous parade of wildlife on the river banks and in the river all the while.  Evidently there's a big Anthrax outbreak among the animals in the park and neighboring bush, and everyone's concerned about it. We see several elephant carcasses in the distance and numerous places where the authorities have burnt the bodies to prevent the spread of disease.  One elephant - a big one from the looks of it - has died at the river edge and its body has fallen into the water; as we pass the smell is intense and pretty awful, and through my long lens I can see that the water around the body is churning with crocodiles having a fine old time.  Not something, apparently, the skipper of the boat wants to cozy up to with a dozen kids on board and dinner waiting at the dock. 

Dinner is more or less a repeat of the previous night; the promised "steak fry" turns out instead to be a "Mongolian barbecue" - meaning you pick your own ingredients for a stir-fry and that's your entrée.  Okay, again, I'm more impressed at the ability of the lodge to cater for this many people when lines of logistics are obviously so long. 

Tonight the power stays on but we are back in our rondavel by 9 and in bed by 9:30; our heads are simply too stuffed with images to permit us to talk clearly about all we're seeing, plus we're still fighting the time change, so sleep is instant.  More late-night sound effects, more distant this time.

Saturday, 20 August

There's no point in fighting success, we decide, so we opt for a repeat of the 10 am game drive, and thus have time for another great breakfast, this time monkey-free, and to lay out laundry for the lodge to wash - a bargain compared to the Sydney Holiday Inn's extortion.

The game drive is, if anything, even more rewarding.  Odi spots a huge herd of elephant near a mud-bath hole by the river, and we drive more or less into the middle of them; we are surrounded by what looks like the better part of a hundred elephant - moms, babies, the whole mishpocha, all having a fine old time in the river and the mud and eating and partying.  

Otherwise, it's same-old same-old - seriously it starts becoming hard to get excited all over again by a family of elephants standing 15 feet from your car.  Well, not, but we actually spend quite a lot of time looking at birds and other things, including a couple of Ostrich that apparently are relatively rare sightings in Chobe. 

Lunch is potato chips and beers on the deck, surrounded by Australians and South Africans hollering at a rugby match between the two countries' national teams on the one television in the bar (SA wins); the bar reportedly has run out of gin and is getting low on beer by dinnertime.  We rest up in the rondavel, I start this part of the web narrative (it's days later as I write this) and we pack since the next morning we're off at 8 for Victoria Falls.  We decide we'll have an early dinner and bed. 

Ah, but… 

No sooner than we're seated with the kerosene lantern on our terrace table, and the cooks are opening up the buffet line and steak fry (real steak this time) the lights go out again.  For a couple of minutes I wait to hear the sound of the auxiliary kick in, but evidently there's a problem with that, too.  Except for the few table lanterns lit (and not many people have been seated nor provided with their lanterns yet) the night is pitch black (some cloud cover, too). 

Something hits Miriam on the back of the head and she yelps. Then I am whacked on the shoulder - it feels like a pebble.  Across the dark dining terrace, people start yelling and children start crying.  More yelps and eeks and stronger stuff.  I set the lantern in the middle of the table and behold the source.  Around a million - no, make that two million - shiny winged black beetles, around half an inch in diameter, have materialized out of the night, and they are flying everywhere, landing on people, on the dishes and table tops, in hair…  I look at Miriam and she has four of them on her shirt, which I brush off while they make angry buzzing noises (but apparently are quite harmless.)  It dawns on me that they're going for the light, so I set the lantern down on the ground and sure enough it's immediately surrounded by a few dozen insects, crawling over each other toward the light.  It's like some sort of Indiana Jones movie.  The cooks, wait staff, all other persons in positions of authority, have vanished.

Ordinarily at this point we would be making it for our lodging, but the lights are out and there are still hazards in the night, so we have no alternative but to try to survive the bug infestation. 

After around 30 minutes, or maybe it was a year, the lights come back on and the bugs vanish as if by magic and the staff re-materialize.  Dinner is served, albeit with most people still squinting at their food (a) because the lanterns are on the ground and (b) lord knows what's crawling over your steak.  There are numerous former beetle bodies about, too. Like most diners, we make short shrift of our meal and head for our lodgings, grateful that the window screens will have kept things that go buzz in the night at bay.  We laugh in bed about Bogie and Kate Hepburn.  What's next, goddamned leeches? 

Sunday, 21 August 

No, the leeches are up the road, across the Zimbabwe border.

Next - A day in Zimbabwe.

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