Lynn and I fulfilled a long time dream and went on Safari in Africa, June 27- July 17, 2007. Safari means journey in Swahili. What a journey it turned out to be! Almost everything about it was fantastic, wonderful and phenomenal. I would recommend this trip to anyone going to Africa for the first time.
We traveled with OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) out of Cambridge Massachusetts. Previously, we did their Australia trip and their Costa Rica trip, both of which we thoroughly enjoyed. These trips are restricted to small groups (<17) and on the earlier two trips we found it fun to be with the other travelers.
This time we were a group of 12: an extended family of 6 (grandpa [James] and grandma [Micky], two adult daughters [Trish and Laura], one [Laura] with her husband [Jim] and their daughter [Emily]), a married couple [Tammy and Bruce] sans their three daughters, a sister and brother [Karen and Fred] each around 70, and Lynn and I. Karen and Fred went on the pre-trip with us to Kruger park in northern South Africa. That was an amazing start to the Safari and remained the best camp of the whole experience. Our guide in Kruger, Godfrey, also held onto his position as most fantastic guide. The general guide for the rest of the trip was Tinashe, another outstanding individual.
Each of the camps we visited was out in the wilderness and only our group was accommodated except in Kruger where there were a dozen or so others. With generators supplying electricity, the "tents" had running water, showers, lights, fans and either thatched roofs or canvas roofs. While they varied in size each was capacious and comfortable. Each camp also had a main open air lodge, usually with a fire place, a bar, and a large dinning table. All meals were taken in the lodge. During the daylight hours you could come and go to your tent alone. The tents were spaced apart and had plenty of space between them. The tents were unheated but there was hot water for showers. Wild animals could easily come into camp especially at night. This included elephants, antelopes and even cats (the big types). At night you could not go to your tent alone and had to be escorted by a guide who often toted a loaded rifle. At no time could you simply go for a walk into the bush. At some camps the night was filled with noise. Little bushbabies in the trees outside our tent in Kruger displayed a very big sound, as did baboons at another camp in very early morning. I recall hearing, at various places, hyena, lions, hippos and a variety of birds at night. The Kruger camp and the camp near Moremi in the Okavango delta had raised walkways connecting the tents with the lodge. In Kruger, nyala hung around the walkway and one went under our raised, stilted tent to bang his horns on the floorboards from underneath. Yes, the tents had floors, usually wooden but sometimes cement. About half were stilted and half were flat on the ground. There was no heat. One morning we awoke to 32 degrees F. When we first arrived in Johannesburg (Joburg to the locals) we had missed by a day the first snowfall in 26 years. Yet, by 9 am it was usually comfortable and warm by 2 pm.
Game drives occurred every morning at 7:30 am (6:30 am in Kruger). This meant you were awakened an hour earlier to get dressed in the cold air. The animals can be seen early so you abide by their schedule. Just before the drive one got a quick but light breakfast. On returning at about 10:30 or 11 am, there was a big brunch and nearly everyone ate a lot. This was followed by showers and rest until 3-4 pm when the evening game drive began. That drive would last until after dark and spot lights were used on the returns to see the nocturnal animals. Then dinner ensued and everyone again ate a lot. Overall the food was very good. The jostling, jerking and bouncing in the game trucks that are open air Safari vehicles gave you the exercise that fed the large appetites. We wore layers of clothes since a moving truck creates a colder experience than still air and as the day wore on we took layers off only to add them back as darkness fell in the evening. Hoods or stocking hats were essential. Blankets and ponchos were de rigueur. A guide and 6 persons occupied one truck and the two trucks went on different trips. Since they were in radio contact, sightings were shared and thus the chance of sightings was increased. Sometimes we got on the ground and went for walks into the bush with the experienced guide. In Kruger this was done extensively and we came close to elephants and antelopes of various kinds, as well as hippos and crocs. At one point we stopped to go down to the bank of the Limpopo river to look for elephant, hippo and crocs. After some observations we re-entered the truck and as we began to drive off, Karen spotted a large cobra in the tall grass through which we had walked. The cobra held it head at least three feet above the ground so that it could see over the grass as it fled the scene rapidly. I can only imagine how big the rest of its body must have been for it to move with so much head and neck elevated to three feet high. I was much more cautious in the grass after that. >
Initially only Karen and I appreciated birds while Fred and Lynn did not. Godfrey turned out to be a bird specialist and we were seeing all sorts of birds. We managed to observe the three rarest in Kruger, Pels Fishing Owl and the Racket-Tailed Roller by day and the Three-Banded Courser by night. Bird watching was infectious and Fred was soon converted and even Lynn grew to appreciate their beauty. Over the entire trip I recorder 108 different birds. This did not include scores of little birds too difficult to identify positively. 18 raptors were recorded, including the Tawny Eagle, Booted Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Martial Eagle, Black-Chested Snake Eagle, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Bateleur Eagle and African Fish-Eagle, just to give you an idea of the variety of eagles. Did you know that a snake eagle has no feathers on its legs. Instead the legs have hard scales. It turns out that if a venomous snake bites a feather the venom can enter the spine of the feather that contains some of the bird's blood vessels and the bird will be killed. Unlike hair that is dead keratin, feathers are alive and have blood vessels. So a snake eagle has no feathers on its legs. The huge ground hornbill also likes to eat snakes, as well as scorpions and spiders, and the mongoose too has his share of snakes. Being venomous is no defense for the snake. Venom serves the snake when it eats its prey. The Bateleur eagle is especially beautiful and we saw several including juveniles. The African fish-eagle reminds one of the American bald eagle and is plentiful.>
We first flew from Atlanta to Miami to London and then to Joburg. This took two days. Lynn insisted that the Miami-London-Joburg legs be done in business class. This turned out to be wise. 19 hours in the air was a lot and business class made it tolerable. We got the upper deck seats three times out of four which added to the relaxation. The upper deck holds ~12 seats. These recline completely and sleep is a real possibility if you are not over 6 feet tall. I am 6' 2" and had some trouble. In London on the way over we had a long layover so we were given a day room in a nearby Hilton. We were to be met by an OAT rep to guide our return to the airport at 4 pm. He didn't show. A gas leak had shut down several streets and part of the airport. The Glasgow airport had suffered a car bombing. We made our way back alone by train and made the connection to Joburg on time. The OAT rep was not heard from again and we suppose he got stuck in the traffic associated with the sudden increase in security.
After the Kruger pre-trip we went back to Joburg by small plane, just as we had gone to Kruger from Joburg by small plane. These small planes, often 4 seaters plus pilot, fly low and allow a splendid view of terrain and animals, and they terrify Lynn. Once back in Joburg we met the rest of the group and we all headed for our first camp together in Chobe park via Victoria Falls, a small town at the famous falls. We then drove in a closed minibus to our lodge in Botswana. Here we did game drives and a boat cruise on the Chobe river. I had heard that hippos upend boats to appease the crocs (hippos kill more persons each year in Africa than any other animal). I asked if our pontoon boat was a one hippo or a two hippo boat and was assured it was a two hippo boat. That meant that we were safe since the hippos have nasty dispositions and almost never work together. We did see many hippos in the river and got close to some. They would bellow and show their enormous teeth. The real danger from hippos comes not when they are in water but at night when they forage on land. If you are unfortunate enough to get between them and their water they return to the water at 40 mph right over you.
Travel between camps might begin with an open air safari vehicle ride to a simple airstrip. A short flight and another safari vehicle ride might take you to a river where a boat then takes you to a remote customs and immigration tent out in the middle of nowhere. A military customs agent shows up and stamps your passport and then it is off by boat to the next truck ride and into camp.>
Since our trip was in the winter season for South Africa, it was also the dry season and the animals congregated around water holes. This was true for each of the five tented camps in which we stayed. This meant we were treated to herds of zebra, antelopes, buffalo, giraffe and elephant, as well as large rafts of hippos. Giraffes are really elegant. When a group is standing and browsing it is a tower of giraffes, when moving slowly it is a jeny of giraffes, and when running it is a stride of giraffes. One herd of zebra numbered over 250. This is referred to as a dazzle of zebra. The stripes of so many animals together confuses the lions who can no longer single out individuals. We did observe two zebras serving as meals for successful lions. This was done by going off-road near to where several vultures were roosting in dead trees waiting their turn. The guides were very adept at reading tracks and other signs to find the big cats. One evening we watched lion cubs frolic joyfully and on another, later in real darkness, we chased after lions that were trying to kill a buffalo. Lynn has good photos of two other lions too fat to move and lying on their backs. Of the antelopes we saw the biggest to the smallest from Eland to Duiker. The others that we saw were: Roan Antelope, Sable Antelope (really beautiful), Bushbuck, Giraffe, Red Hartebeast, Impala (scores of them), Greater Kudu, Red Lechwe, Nyala, Puku, Reedbuck, Steenbok, Tsessebe, Waterbuck, Gnu and Zebra. At one point we saw Kudu and Eland together. Someone asked if they could interbreed. The guide said no, and I said when they get together they "can't elope."
Predators are not just big cats. We also saw a Ratel, two Civets, a Small-spotted Genet and the Spotted Hyena, mostly at night. By day we saw many Black-Backed Jackals, in monogamous pairs, and one pair of Side-Striped Jackals at night. For me the highlight of these lesser predators was a nighttime observation of an Aardwolf. Bat-Eared Foxes were also seen and I had the good fortune to see Banded Mongooses, Selous' Mongooses, Slender Mongooses and Dwarf Mongooses. Yes, the plural is mongooses. The Dwarfs are no bigger than squirrels. In Kruger we also saw Rock Hyrax, once thought to be relatives of elephants (they are the size of house cats) but now through modern DNA analysis they are no longer related to elephants at all. Of the omnivores my favorite is the Warthog. What a beautiful animal. Since I was alone in their appreciation, they became referred to as Ronhogs by my compatriots.
Among the many big birds other than eagles were Storks, Vultures and Herons. The Secretary Bird was an especially appreciated sighting. Fred (a retired professor of business) respecting PC renamed it the Administrative Assistant Bird. All sorts of Francolins and Guinea fowl were seen, the latter often in large flocks. Besides the crocs and the cobra we also saw the Rock Monitor, the Water Monitor and I saw a Striped Skink. The Monitors are impressive in size but are dwarfed by those we saw in Australia.
Let's return to elephants for a few moments. To a watering hole in the Okavango delta we went on our evening drive looking for the wily rhinoceros. At one point the estimate of several of us was that we were surrounded on all sides by about 800 elephants. Herds came in and others went out. They drank and bathed in the mud and dusted. The babies were especially precious. They must learn to use their trunks for many purposes. Watching the really young ones swing their trunks around aimlessly is amusing but they get good at using them quite young anyway. Females are well endowed with mammary glands and the males are astounding when they show off their equipment. However, there is an unsettling aspect to it all. There are far too many elephants. They are raising young at an alarmingly good rate, even given the 22 month gestation period. In some game parks we saw areas of complete habitat destruction. Elephants think nothing of taking down whole trees. In the natural cycle of life there will be population explosions, habitat destruction and large scale die offs of elephants that may have time scales of 50-100 years (my guess). Such long times don't work for the tourism business. Thus management strategies are being tried and they clearly aren't working either. Culling is the most talked about approach. Originally this meant selective killing of adult elephants. But if you kill the matriarch who has all the knowledge about where to find water, food and salt licks, and a replacement hasn't yet been trained (usually one of the matriarch's daughters) then the whole herd will suffer and perhaps die out anyway. In modern times culling has meant killing an entire herd, old and young alike. This is probably more humane to the elephants but there is a lot of adverse reaction from humans to killing baby elephants. Moving individuals or herds to new locales is either too expensive or when successful it is often followed by the elephants returning to their old home, sometimes over considerable distances. The elephant problem is about to explode in Southern Africa.>
Other problems associated with elephants involve ivory. The anti-poaching units seem to have curbed the killing of elephants for ivory. Culling provides an opportunity for the governments to control the sale of culled ivory. We noticed some elephants without tusks. This is genetic. Apparently in the past it was more common but the ivory trade lead to weeding out the "bad genes," i.e. those for no tusks. Now one sees these genes coming back. Tusks are an important tool for elephants. They use them to dig in salt licks and to strip bark. It is said that when a tusk-less elephant has trouble with these tasks others in the herd with tusks help them out. All in all the elephant is a very impressive creature.
Rhino horn is another problem for the anti-poaching units. Some peoples believe that rhino horn, properly ground up, is an aphrodisiac. A great deal of money can be made from one horn. Poachers kill the rhino and saw off the horn (it is made of compacted hair, keratin). They leave the rest of the rhino to the vultures and hyenas. The anti-poaching unit tried to stop this practice by simply cutting the rhino horns off of living animals and letting them go free (like simple hair there are no blood vessels or nerves in horn). While they do use their horns for various purposes they can survive quite well without them. However, evolution at some level or other is always at work. The poachers would spend days tracking a rhino only to find that it had no horn. So they killed it in order not to waste time tracking it again. The current penalties for poaching are severe. It is no longer the practice to shoot them on sight as it was until recently but we were told that incarcerated poachers somehow don't live very long in prison.
We were in South Africa (Kruger park), Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. These countries have similar climates. In winter, when we were there, they have cold mornings and warm afternoons with low humidity. The soil is basically sand, either white, tan or red. Trees grow everywhere but there are stretches of desert-like terrain. There is ancient basalt in many places. This is not the savanna country of Kenya and Tanzania. Palm trees are often seen. They are not native, nor is the corn and beans of the staple diet of the tribes. It is starkly beautiful. The night skies are alive with stars and the Milky Way is so bright it looks like misty clouds. The waterways are clear, free of run-off and algal blooms. Much of the land is still pristine. One easily falls in love with being there. Development of more camps is a real threat. Tourism is either the main economic engine in these countries or the second most powerful engine (after mining). When we went on game drives we were virtually alone. In more developed parks further north a rhino sighting can draw 20 vehicles in minutes and the thrill of the sighting is quickly ruined by trucks jostling for position (we experienced something like this in just one park when a leopard sighting went out over the airwaves). The tourism trade is in delicate balance but government corruption may lead to ruination of this balance. I would not repeat this trip if I thought I would be among crowds of tourists. The Galapagos Islands are facing a similar problem. They have tried to control access but immigration of Ecuadorians to the Islands may destroy that paradise (we were their just a couple of years ago and loved it).
No account of a safari trip is complete without comment about the "bush stop." This is also known as "checking the tires" for men. The game drives last several hours and not everyone is still young. Some men have enlarging prostates or weak bladders, and women of all ages have smaller bladders than men. I for one take medication for a thickening bladder wall condition that reflects my 64 years. Riding in a safari vehicle over bumpy roads means one will have to have a "bush stop." Generally, you don't get out of these vehicles in the bush. Two exceptions are made, the "bush stop" and the refreshment stop for drinks (coffee and sodas in the morning, "sundowners" in the evening). The guide gets out first and checks for lions, big animals and snakes. When he gives the all-clear, the men do as they please and the women grab the toilet paper roll and head for a bush. At first this is done with due decorum and respect of privacy but by the time a week has gone by the men are satisfied that the women aren't looking in their general direction, or merely turn their backs, and the women by now aren't too concerned either as long as their bush isn't too far away. Before we left for this trip I was somewhat concerned about how I would fare on these game drives. I can assure you readers with similar concerns that it is not an issue. The quantity of animal exhaust (excreta), solid and liquid, that already exists everywhere is impressive and that added by a few humans is nothing. This is underscored by what one sees from the small planes while changing camps. Every water hole has numerous trails radiating from it in all directions. The animal trails are far more dense than you might imagine and they are covered in exhaust. The elephants make the best trails, like one track country roads (elephant herds usually travel single file). Many other species use their trails including man. Man turns them into two track country roads (one lane) with his trucks. The elephants in turn like these even better, as do lions, antelope and hippos. One of our walking trips in Kruger was dedicated to learning about dung. I am now learned about elephant dung, hippo dung, giraffe dung, buffalo dung, antelope dung of many types and lion feces. I also know the difference between dung and feces. I know how long ago the elephants came through, from their dung and the state of their tracks.
Part of any OAT trip is cultural. This trip included two visitations to elementary schools and their villages. The children learn English from the start because their textbooks and workbooks are in English. We were able to communicate with them to a degree. Especially interesting was how they reacted to the presence of Emily who is 11. It was as if the rest of us weren't there. Boys outnumbered girls and in higher grades this gets worse. Many parents think that girls should be home learning how to run the household in these patriarchal societies. The structure of a village is a collection of homesteads. A homestead is a family group with the main parents in one house, other houses for additional wives and for grown children. Each house is made of a cement derived from crushed termite mounds plus water. Termite mounds are everywhere and of prodigious size. These termites eat fungus that they grow on plant matter that they gather at night. They mix their saliva with the sand and create a very hard cement. Aardvarks can rip these mounds open and kill the queen but most other termite predators leave the nest alive (we saw many aardvark excavations but no aardvarks who are nocturnal). Snakes and monitors may live in holes in the mounds and over time trees will grow on them producing little raised island habitats (6-12 feet high) that can punctuate the region. Different colors of sand produce various colors of termite mounds and the native people use these choices to make huts that have colorful variations. Polygamy is common. Men do few jobs around the homestead. Women do almost everything. A group of homesteads makes up a village and there will be one headsman for this village. A group of villages will be overseen by a chief. We were treated to a tale about marriage by the son of a headsman. A teenage girl gets her own hut in the homestead. A suitor can sneak in at night and sneak out before sun-up. This can go on for some time. Eventually, if the couple is so inclined, the suitor goes to an aunt or uncle or perhaps to the headsman or chief and asks that he or she go to the girl's parents and tells them that the couple is serious. If this is acceptable the suitor visits the girl's parents and proves his worth by various means. If that goes well the girl visits the boy's parents and proves to the mother that she will be able to take care of the boy (she spends the day cooking and doing other chores as proof). If that goes well, the number of cows needed for the boy to purchase the girl will be set. A sort of "cattle for chattel." The trick is for the suitor not to get caught at night and thereby ruin the girl's reputation. I believe everyone knows what is going on and the whole thing is ritualized. In the case of multiple wives, jealousies do develop. Our main guide, Tinashe, was at the stage where he was getting enough cows for a down payment on his bride to be.
The Baobab tree deserves to be discussed. They were seen everywhere but abundantly only in Kruger. These are the trees with the enormous trunks. In winter they have no leaves and the fractal-like structure of their branches leads to their common name, the upside down tree. They are beautiful. Unlike other trees they have no tree rings and the entire trunk is living tissue (they are succulents). While elephants can "ring" an ordinary tree with their tusks in order to eat the bark, thereby killing it, they do not kill the baobab by gouging out huge chunks of trunk. When a baobab does finally die, the whole structure collapses into a pile of soft debris. Estimates of age are based on circumference or diameter. We saw one in Kruger said to be over 3000 years old. Its trunk had a diameter of 4-5 meters!! Botanists are skeptical about these putatively huge ages. Another curious feature is that no one can show you a juvenile baobab. Apparently they look different from the adults for several years and have different looking leaves so that you only see grown trees. We looked for young ones and none were identified. Whole communities of animals (especially birds) and other plants can colonize a baobab. The trunk is used for fiber by the natives and we purchased a baobab fiber basket. From the air in the small planes it is easy to spot a baobab from 5000 feet. Acacia trees are another common tree that is seen everywhere. There are many varieties but each has thorns. The giraffes and elephants happily munch the thorns along with the leaves. The classic image of an acacia tree as an inverted triangle on a trunk and a flat top is a result of sculpting by the browsing giraffes. Elephants are more likely to simply break off branches. The Mopani tree is also common in some regions. The Mopani worm, a moth caterpillar that feeds on Mopani leaves, is fried and eaten as a delicacy. Fred and I enjoyed these quite a lot. Most of the rest of our party don't eat "worms." The Marula tree produces seed pods especially liked by elephants. A liqueur, Amarula, is made from the fruits and I liked it quite a lot in the evening. Drinking it at night attracts elephants, at least in your sleep. It is a bit like Bailey's Irish Cream.
While in the Okavango delta region we went on a Mokoro ride in the narrow river. The mokoro is a dug-out canoe made from the trunk of a hardwood tree. In is poled by a standing man while the two passengers are seated. Although our polers were authentic native guides, the mokoros were made of fiberglass. Fiberglass is much lighter to move. It would be easy to capsize a mokoro. This ride was more peaceful than revealing of wildlife. It was ended when we came upon a small raft of hippos. These are one hippo boats! We turned around and went back. On our disembarkation, Lynn managed to let her camcorder, a birthday present from me for the trip, slip into the water. During the ensuing game drive she noticed it was missing. Some hours passed and when we returned to the mokoros on the bank, Bruce saw it in a few inches of water. It no longer works, but was insured before we left on the trip. Its disc for stills was retrieved and we now have the photos (Lynn also had a separate still camera that she did not immerse). The movie tape was damaged on extraction but there is a chance a expert will be able to salvage some, even most, of the movies too.
Our last days were spent in the small town of Victoria Falls. There we had several options regarding how to spend time. Lynn and I (and Tammy and Bruce) went on an elephant game drive, that is we rode on the back of an elephant. We did see Kudu, Buffalo, Impala and Warthog from its back. The Buffalo gave the gun toting guide a start. They are unpredictable creatures, especially lone males. On an elephant's back there is no real danger but the guide walked in front of us on the ground. While riding the elephant's back she began to rumble, or at least her body did. The handler sat first, Lynn next and I last, just over the rump. I was enveloped in elephant fart, followed by feeling the dung come out and then the urine (feeling all of this as I sat on her back). This was a unique experience and my intimacy with the elephant was secured (her name is Tattoo). We also went on a lion walk. This is done with three lion cubs that are captive but are released for the walk (they have 8 cubs and release 3 at a time for the walks). Four of us were attended to by three guides, one of whom carried as loaded rifle. The "cubs" were 15 months old which means they were much bigger than German shepherds. We saw them frolic, climb trees and show off their considerable agility and strength. We were only a few feet from them but always with the gun toting guide in between. We were taught that if a lion charges, you must not scream or run. You can't outrun them. You can't climb a tree to get away either. They are much better climbers as we saw. You are supposed to face the charge and stare them in the eyes. This last tactic is supposed to really work when the lion gets to within a few feet. Not screaming or running by then would take considerable self-control. It would also require a change of pants. I have also heard that if this doesn't work and you are now under the lion being mauled that if you bite her/him on the stomach she/he will run away. The eye staring works if you are taller than the lion, thus looking DOWN at her/him. This is why children under 1.5 meters tall are no longer taken on these walks. We were told that when they were in the past the lions were constantly circling around the guides to go after the kids.
Victoria Falls also provided an opportunity to do curio shopping. This can be done in upscale shops or in an open air market where you bargain. We tried an upscale shop first. The eight foot tall giraffe that Lynn liked was only 86$ US. However, shipping this teak carving was estimated at 500$ US. We didn't get it. In the open air market that is extensive there are some really nice pieces in stone, in metal and in wood. There are many stalls. Each stall has its "artist" showing his wares. One quickly notices that each artist was trained in the exactly same style as the others. Nothing is signed and one soon wonders how much of it is actually from China. Probably it is all from parts of Africa and the stalls are franchises. We did purchase some nice small pieces that were lugged back home as carry-on luggage. An extra bag had to be purchased and the weight was noticeable as we went through airports making connections. I shouldn't omit to mention that we also did go see the falls. They are splendid, about twice as high and twice as wide as Niagara falls. Considerable mist is generated that creates rainbows and makes seeing the bottom from the top impossible. One also gets completely soaked while strolling from viewpoint to viewpoint.
For me this trip was a sort of "heritage trip." We are all "out of Africa." The Toba super-volcano eruption 74,000 years ago coincides with a putative human population bottleneck of fewer than 10,000 extant persons, based on DNA analysis (both mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal). Another radiation of peoples out of Africa (recently said to be from sub-Saharan Africa) occurred and all of us are the result. The trip was for me a return to my roots.
July 22, 2007