South Africa, Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe
I have wanted to experience a photo safari since I was a child. Perhaps it comes from watching too many afternoon episodes of Tarzan and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle on television and reading Cry the Beloved Country in school only heightened my interest. Fortunately, my husband Ed has an adventurous spirit, so off we went to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Our trip lasted nearly a month from mid-May to mid-June and included both the wilderness safari experience we wanted, as well as many opportunities for cultural exchanges. The four countries are quite different. Each has its own unique history, culture, customs and indigenous people.
In another Soweto district, we walked Vilakazi St., past Bishop Tutu’s home and saw Nelson Mandela’s house, which is now a museum. The docent there had been part of his government, had known many members of the Mandela family and had interesting anecdotes to share. Our guide continued our tour of Johannesburg with Constitution Hill and court. He said the population of Jo’burg was about 12 million and although it is clearly a thriving commercial city with many international companies, about 25% of the people are unemployed since immigrants from many other countries in southern Africa come seeking jobs. We also drove through Maboneng, Jo’burg’s Greenwich Village. The following day, our guide took us to the Apartheid Museum, which gives some sense of what it was like living in apartheid South Africa. Our random museum tickets meant Ed entered as a non-white and I took a different entrance and route as white. Our paths eventually came together so we could compare experiences. The personal stories exhibit, historical film clips and archives were helpful in capturing the overall politics as well as a day in the life of those classified as Black, Colored, Indian and White South Africans. Our guide also shared information to fill in more history and experiences, both then and now. The following afternoon, our new guide took us to a bird sanctuary in an upscale area of Jo’burg. There were many colorful birds and some animals that roamed freely in some of the exhibits. The neighborhood was a sharp contrast to the other parts of the city, with broad streets and gardens, and large homes behind walls topped with razor wire – a reminder of how divided this country still is.
The next morning, we met our fellow safari travelers for our flight and bus ride to our first camp, Baobab Lodge in Botswana, and our main bush guide. Along the way, we had our first game sighting – a couple of female elephants on the side of the road and then directly in front of us a bull elephant majestically sauntered across the road. Awe inspiring! We got to the lodge in the late afternoon. This one had a large open furnished patio (think “glamping!”) that overlooked the flood plain. We were given an orientation (check for insects in your shoes, make sure the mosquito-netting is securely tucked in around the bed, which was pre-warmed with a hot water bottle) and DON’T GO OUT AT NIGHT! Our four camps were similar in their features and our meals were always shared with our guides. No questions were considered off limits to try to better our understanding among different cultures, so the guides asked us questions as well. For example, a guide asked how we felt about the American game hunter who killed the popular lion, Cecil. Who, if anyone, did we think was in the wrong? After expressing our opinions, we asked his. Without judgement, he said that the guide should not have lured the lion from the protected reserve, but wanted to know why Americans were so angry over the death of one lion in Zimbabwe while being silent about the many people there dying from lack of medicines for treatable diseases. A thoughtful discussion ensued. There was much to learn for all of us and about all of us. We would be bringing home much more than some amazing photographs. We were escorted to our “chalet” tent, the last one near the top of the hill. It turned out that we had the best tent. As the sun began to sink into a fiery sunset over the watering hole, we watched a large troop of baboons come down the hill between our tent and the next one, heading for the water. There were three mothers with babies clinging to their chests and the large male was on the top of the hill on the other side of our tent overseeing all. A parade of elephants approached from the other side of our tent, intercepting them and we learned that elephants have priority as the baboons stopped, lined up in front of our tent screeching their displeasure and sulkily waiting for their turn. A water buck grazed nearby. In all, a welcoming experience and perfect end to our first day in the bush. Ed had no difficulty falling asleep, but twice I heard an elephant trumpet and the baboon chatter kept waking me – as did the animals scampering on our canvass roof and the footfall crunches in the leaves alongside our tent. Our mornings started with a drum alarm before first light, but it was easy to hurry to the lodge for hot coffee since morning temperatures did not always get up to 40 degrees. Our bush guide asked how we had slept and when I told him, he said that the baboons were the bush “alarm clocks”. They let the other animals know about any lurking dangers. Our guide had checked the tracks and there had been a leopard outside of our tent. I assured him that had I been contemplating a romantic moonlight stroll, he could now be assured that I would not be leaving my tent after dark! Our game viewing drives were in open jeeps over rough terrain. There was little difference between the roads and off-roading. The trees and scenery were beautiful. Our first morning in Chobe, we hit the wildlife viewing jackpot. We saw elephants, kudus, giraffe, impala and more impala, and learned about animal behavior. Birds included spoonbills, Egyptian geese, helmeted guinea fowl, pied kingfisher, a lilac breasted roller and red beaked hornbills. We saw warthogs (who eat by bending down on their front knees like they were praying), a black backed jackal, white headed cormorants, trees that were beautiful in bleached driftwood death, herons and crocodiles. Hippos turned out to be the most hazardous animal to humans, as they are fast and aggressive. The bashful giraffes were beautiful and elegant as they moved like floating ballerinas. We saw rare sable antelope with horns that turn backward to stab any predator foolish enough to jump on their back and there were lots of cape buffalo. It was amazing to see so many animals together – like Noah’s ark; a dazzle of zebra with giraffes and a nearby group of impalas.
The afternoon was spent in the village of Mabele at a woman named Naria’s home where we were invited in. She was clearly proud of her home, where she lived with her daughters and grandchildren. She started her days at 4:00 AM making bricks with her grandson, then preparing meals and getting the grandchildren off to “crèche”. Naria would tend to her yard and weave baskets to sell at a village shop. The kitchen was a separate building with an open fire for cooking and a mortar and pestle. Her daughters had separate “homes” in her yard. Our local bush guide explained some possibilities when later asked where the fathers of the children and grandchildren were. He said they have a saying that men are an axe and an axe can cut many trees… He said that things are changing, but slowly. While now illegal, local traditions still provide for multiple wives and although the government will go after men to support their children, they are rarely reported since the grandmothers often want to raise large extended families as they have done for generations and over which they are in charge. Our game viewing days included stops for tea and coffee, lunch, and afternoon sundowner cocktails and refreshments. We often shared these meals with wildlife. One such lunch included some very fast and experienced food-stealing vervet monkeys that coordinated their diversions. At one point, I tried to keep a fellow traveler from another food theft (we did not learn as quickly as the monkeys, but were starting to catch on!) and was false-charged by one female. I stepped forward in response, growled and waived my arms at her. She abruptly sat down, fist to her chin, with a Jack Benny expression on her face like “what do we do now?”. We all laughed as it was just part of their game. We were learning about animal behavior in the wild and how to be a part of nature, respecting that we were on their territory. We saw the dominant female of a lion pride sleepily guarding the remainder of the cape buffalo kill – and let her snooze. Back to the lodge for a braai – a BBQ Africa style. Since we were guests, our camp staff washed our hands for us before and after the meal in their traditional way. We ate our soup with home baked bread, no spoons, and was it very tasty. One of our local guides posed as the “chief” and answered questions about life under the old ways, which are still practiced (e.g. many wives), how things are changing and wedding customs. The staff then treated us to local dancing and songs, complete with ululations. The women danced with their ankle shells and beads for percussion, and the men joined in the harmony. We were all invited to share the stage, but wisely decided not to prove America does NOT have talent. The night sky was amazingly clear and we saw the Southern Cross on the way back to our tent. On the way to our next camp, we came upon a leopard stalking a porcupine. The leopard would stop to pull quills from its paw with its teeth, but was determined. Our guide explained that it could take the leopard about 45 minutes to flip the porcupine over and grasp its throat, but porcupine was a leopard delicacy and the leopard would probably prevail. They wandered off the road to continue their struggle. At the small airport at Kisane, we boarded a four seater Cessna, landed at an airstrip, and arrived at Baneka Camp in the Okavango delta, which is a savannah and quite different from Chobe. The Kalahari Desert sand is deep and the jeep slid around in it like an amusement park ride. We got to our tent and could see an elephant in the distance and some red letchwe. Our local guides were clearly local naturalists and were teaching us how to read the animals tracks, or “newspapers” as they called them. Breakfast was in the dark in a fenced enclosure. The sliver crescent of a moon was beautiful between the skeletal branches of a dead tree and the stars were amazing. We all wanted to be near the camp fire as it was colder than our previous camp, a reminder that while the calendar indicated it was June, that is the equivalent of December weather south of the equator! Our game viewing day included a mother hyena with her 3 to 4–month old baby and their den. We got to see them up close and watch the baby chew on her ears, while staring curiously at us. The baby played/chewed on a stick – or bone. We all agreed that babies are cute, even predators’. At brunch in the bush we stopped and shared the watering hole with a parade of elephants. Sunrise’s first light glow was beautiful from our tent. Our guide took us for a mokoro trip (a local version of a dugout canoe) among the channels. We were grateful to have another guide ahead of us who was on the lookout for hippos and crocodiles. After days of the jeep engines, the peace, serenity and tranquility among water lilies and purple flowers was a welcome change. The tiny frogs were only fractions of an inch long and hard to spot, even with our guide pointing them out.
On another game viewing drive, we came upon a young adult male elephant and stopped. He was curious about us and slowly, very slowly, approached us. It was almost comical to see an animal this large tentatively raise one foot to come forward only to step back, unsure if he wanted to get closer to our jeep. He came within a few feet of me and I was surprised to see how long his eyelashes were. He raised his trunk, tentatively reaching out, curious, slowly, hesitating to touch this strange object. I could see into his raised trunk, and watched him flex the point. One of our fellow travelers was concerned so we left, but our new friend followed us for awhile before giving up on his curiosity.
We did not see a predator actually kill its prey to my relief, but saw a pack of wild painted dogs (a rare and endangered species) devouring a kudu. It was interesting to watch them work as a team, with no more than 5 working at a time, rotating with those back in the den, while keeping a lookout for other predators.
On the way to our next camp, we stopped at a market in Livingstone, Zambia. There were mothers carrying babies in brightly colored print slings, called chitenge. I met a woman who had a produce stall and she explained the various items she had to sell. Nothing is wasted; even pumpkin leaves were dried and later cooked with fruit or vegetables. We exchanged recipes and she helped me pick out some fruits from the baobab tree to prepare at our camp (our chef made a tasty porridge with them for breakfast the following morning). This huge market that sold everything (Costco!) and provided hair salon services, would grind grain, did bicycle repairs, etc. Ed and I heard music so we stopped to dance in the street, much to the amusement of the locals who gave us “thumbs up”.
It was another flight to an airstrip, followed by a jeep ride to Lufupu Camp in Kafue, Zambia at the confluence of the Kafue and Lufupu Rivers. There was more game viewing and lots of colorful, exotic birds. Our tent here was on the river next to a small cove with beautiful water lilies, where some hippos spent their mornings and proved to be effective alarm clocks with their snorting and blowing. We went for a boat ride on the Lufupu River, which our guide said means “one that gives”.
Our guides said that in the bush they learn to see the differences in the animals. Their faces are as unique as ours, as are the behaviors of each one. Each animal is as individual as we are, as I found out. As I was walking alone from our tent to the lodge, I saw a warthog grazing in the shade of a bush a few feet away. I saw no babies and the warthog seemed hungrier than it was interested in me, so I nervously hurried to the lodge. I pointed out the warthog to one of the staff, who was concerned, rushed to see and said, “Oh, that’s Lulu”, relieved and very nonchalantly. I asked if she was a pet. He seemed surprised and said no (with an “of - course - not, she’s - a - wild - animal” inflection). He agreed to “mascot”. We shared this story with our group and “Oh, that’s Lulu” became our tag line for putting things in perspective. The bush people accept things as they are and do not try to change or dominate them.
We took a boat ride on the Kafue River, which means land of non-believers. It was peaceful, tranquil and quiet when we stopped the engine and drifted. We could hear the sounds of the water breaking around a nearby huge crocodile as he came down the bank into the river and passed our boat. There was something about that sound that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
We had some opportunities to try a few local delicacies. At our lodge’s bar one evening, our bush hosts gave a presentation of peanuts, dried fish (netted like smelt) and mopani caterpillars. I tried two of the three, but could not get past the visual on the caterpillars. Dinner, prepared by our bush chef complete with toque, was traditional dishes like oxtails. The after dinner boma was fun, with the drummers “tuning” their instruments in the fire to get the skins to proper tautness. The dancing was more energetic than what we have seen so far; we were convinced that one of our guides must have had a universal joint at his waist! One of our fellow travelers lead the staff in a native folk song that he knew from his choral group back home and we sang “Auld Lang Zine” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a round, since custom indicated guests should reciprocate. It was a fine fun evening.
We drove to the airstrip to board our 12 seater Cessna to Livingstone, but had to chase the elephants off the runway before takeoff. On cool mornings, the elephants gather there for the warmth from the concrete. Once in Zimbabwe, we walked across the bridge that connects with Zambia to see Victoria Falls. The mists from the falls hung everywhere, creating a dream-like feeling. There were women with their citenga and balanced loads on their heads. The bridge was also full of day traders. Some were laden down on old bicycles with 200 kilos of subsistence farming such as sweet potatoes to sell in Zimbabwe where they would buy sugar or other prepared staples to sell in Zambia. Our guide stopped one trader so we could understand how they lived. His old bicycle had no pedals, just the metal rods that once held them, and it was too heavy for us to hold. He did not seem to think that this was bad, or good; it just was.
Traveling on, we passed open coal mines and saw the smoldering hillsides of coal from spontaneous combustion as we drove to Hwange National Park, Kashawe Camp, Zimbabwe. After dinner, we were escorted to our tent by a rifle-toting staff member. We finally figured out that the rifle was to shoot the guests who don’t follow directions – less paperwork than if they shoot the animals!
We spent the following morning at an elephant watering hole where we watched in awe as they kept coming to drink, about 50 in all. Sitting in one place for some time gave us a sense of their social community. The mothers with babies were fascinating to watch and the other females all kept an eye on the youngest, giving them a “trunk up” when they fell over and squealed as toddlers will do. We saw lots more wildlife, but the inner peace of discovering the local rhythms had become more interesting. The next morning, we stopped at a small market in Hwange. There were sling shots for sale, strips of tire tubes used for tying packages and cigarettes being sold individually, among the standard food items. It was a mix of villagers and people in city clothes boarding buses, as people here have their city and country homes with different customs.
We went on to visit a homestead, which is a subdivision of a village. Our guide had given each woman a chitenga, so that we would be respectfully attired. We sat in the round summer kitchen with the homestead’s headman, his two sons and several women, three with children. There were many questions on both sides. The women had built this structure in about two weeks with termite mound clay. They do things as a community, and had difficulty understanding American individualism. For example, the women showed us how they pound millet in pairs with a mortar and pestle, alternating their strokes, while other women sang something similar to a sea shanty to provide a working rhythm and watched the children, as the grainy aroma began to fill the air. It takes them about 3 hours, twice a week, to produce enough for about a dozen families. They could not understand why American women would prepare only their family’s food in separate kitchens, which would mean a lot more total time for each village woman to pound her own grain into meal. However, a few of us tried our hand at this task and our families, homestead and village would have gone hungry as we were unable to maintain the appropriate pounding rhythm to the amusement of all.
They were most proud of their communal water tap for which they were very grateful to UNESCO. The women no longer needed to go three kilometers to the river for water. We were invited to the girls’ sleeping hut, saw the animal corrals and chicken coop. They also showed us where they store grain and the silo where they store melons, cucumbers, squash and other produce they farm. However, it was empty because of the drought. Their tools were made from discarded car leaf springs, since nothing is wasted and very little is purchased. As our guide reminded us, we were in a third world country – there is no second world. They sang goodbye and we presented them with our gifts of food and some clothes.
We next went to a primary school of approximately 860 students in classes of 40 to 50 each. It was the only school in a 7-kilometer area. The school did not have a library, but was the recipient of a donated computer lab. We visited two classrooms and in the class of older students we each sat with a group of 6 to 8 students. We exchanged questions and answers about our different cultures. One boy was very outgoing and had many questions about life in the U.S. Ed showed him on the globe where we lived and how far away it was. He was interested in the American Revolution and wanted to know if Ed had fought in the war! I asked about their favorite subjects and what careers they wanted to pursue. One boy was interested in agriculture (cattle are a big part of their culture and financial worth). I told them that my grandfather had been a dairy farmer and that was different from raising cattle. The kids thought it was very funny that we had different types of cows for different purposes and laughed hard.
The children all thought education was extremely important even though only about one quarter of the families could afford the fees, which are about 20% of an average monthly income per student. Many of the chairs were broken and the textbooks were very worn, but the energy, enthusiasm and joy gave us hope that these children will be part of a better future.
The next morning, we travelled on to Victoria Falls, known as “The Smoke That Thunders”. As we walked along the trail, there were a few places where the spray from the falls rose hundreds of feet onto the air, swirled together and fell to earth as refreshing, wind-blown rain. In some spots the spray mist was so deep and thick it was like standing in a cloud. Where the mist parted, there were multiple rainbows.
We were up at 5:30 the next morning for a rhino search at a preserve, where a local guide explained about the very lucrative poaching industry and the lengths to which they go to try to curb it—shoot first, ask questions later. We spotted a black rhino mother and 13-month old baby, and then another mother and baby pair. The mothers were very protective of their calves, never letting them get more than a few feet away. We learned that contrary to the Tarzan episodes of my childhood, rhinos are shy and not particularly dangerous since they have poor eyesight and are not very fast. We took a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls and since there were only three of us, I got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. The way the glass curved around, I could see the ground between my feet while watching a magnificent rainbow work its way along the falls as we changed directions. The pilot asked me if I could see some elephants he was pointing out. When I said that I could not, he proceeded to bank and drop the helicopter down as the engine strained. It was thrilling, like an amusement park ride. Unfortunately, Ed could not hear our conversation and was looking for a parachute!
We did some shopping in town and had brought some items from home with which to barter as suggested. We gave one vendor a tee shirt for some beads. He wanted the socks that Ed was wearing too, but Ed did him a favor and kept them. A dinner cruise along the Zambezi River to watch the sunset as the elephants and hippos came to drink was a peaceful ending to the day.
The following evening, we arrived in Cape Town. We started our city tour at the Kirstenbosch Garden, a World Heritage site, then on to Table Mountain where we took the funicular to the summit for some spectacular views. That evening, we enjoyed a home cooked dinner at the home of a local Cape Town couple. We had a candid discussion about apartheid then and now. Post-apartheid education inequality was a hot topic. Generally, South Africans were disappointed that laws kept being enacted that preclude meaningful change, even though they have been struck down later by their national court. We talked about the end of the Civil War in our country, which did not mean an end of racial inequality, and that our period of Jim Crow laws was not so different.
The next morning, we headed off for a coastline drive to the Cape of Good Hope along white sandy beaches. We saw an ostrich farm before arriving at the Cape, the most southwestern point of the continent. At the Cape Point Lighthouse, we took the funicular to the top for some awesome views and mileage signs to various international cities. We stopped at a national refuge to see a colony of African penguins. It was a day of great photos.
Back in Cape Town the following morning, we walked to St. George’s Cathedral, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s church. In speaking with a docent there, the discussion again turned to the state of America’s political process. During nearly a month of travel, we were repeatedly asked, with all of the opposition candidates in the field, how did we get to Donald Trump? We were asked this by city people and bushmen, all races, cab drivers and educated professionals, men and women. There was never any anger or mockery, just profound sadness. Consistently, they saw the USA as the gold standard worldwide for democracy. If we could not make a go of a democratic republic, then what chance did they have? I am particularly sad to say that in 25 days of being asked this question in various forms, we never came up with an explanation.
Perhaps our guide said it best. There had been daily presentations in our camps about the histories and governments, cultures and problems, as well as the daily life realities of each of the countries we visited. We had informal conversations during meals and while traveling between destinations. Villagers routinely die from common diseases for lack of medical care and medicines, while a major drought this year destroyed much of the agriculture throughout southern Africa. The unemployment rate is upwards of 25% in most of the countries we visited, with Zimbabwe the worst at 80%. Zimbabwe’s president lost the last two elections, but is still there because he says that the country needs him and many of those who have publicly criticized his government have disappeared. Our guide spent many hours with us, listening to our lively pre-convention political discussions, complaints about our government and life in America. He had been open with us and provided us with access to those who could answer our questions, while always trying to understand our thinking. When we asked him how Americans looked to him, he said that he had listened to us repeatedly talk of fears that are not reality and thought to himself “There they go again”. We did not recognize the advantages we had. He then smiled softly, almost sadly, and said of what we thought were problems “You haven’t got a clue...” By this time, most of us had come to appreciate that the values of the people we met on the other side of the world were far superior to our own. They had a very strong sense of community, village and tribe being more important than the individual who would not survive without others. In many ways, they were richer and happier than we are.
Our guide arranged a farewell dinner for our group, replete with entertainment and face painting. There were 14 dishes from various African countries and a good time was had by all. Perhaps as our guide said, the wind will blow us his way again one day.