Where are the Cheetahs?

Other than gorillas and chimpanzees which live in areas we will not visit, the only large mammal we have not yet (5 days before we head home) seen is the cheetah.  Dozens of lions mating, hunting, feasting and playing; five leopard sightings in trees with prey, and resting draped over branches, drinking at a waterhole, walking through tall grass and lounging under a tree with a fresh kill…but still no cheetahs. 

Our guides tell us the vast expanses of the Serengeti will be the most likely place to see them, but only time will tell.  Everyone knows of them for their tremendous speed and agility in running down their prey, and it is not uncommon for them to be robbed by the bigger cats or hyenas after they have done the hard work of the hunt.  Our guides here have referred to their behavior as a of blend of cat and dog.

The last couple days have given us experiences, some that veteran Safari participants and guides have never seen.  These dramas are beyond the regular leopard sightings which fly in the face of the odds.  Driving out from a lesser used park in Kenya, Tsavo West, mostly known for its lava fields and enormous springs called Tzimo Springs, we came upon a dead giraffe in the road.  Upon cautious examination, Daniel told us it was a fresh lion kill.  There were very large male lion prints all around and a short investigative tracking from the safety of our truck led to the sighting of the culprit under a tree 20 meters off the road.  It was hard to imagine a single lion taking down a mature giraffe.

In Manyara National Park in Tanzania we spotted a mother elephant carrying its dead newborn in its mouth!  None of our guides had ever seen this before!  For 20 minutes we watched it and the 6-8 other elephants that accompanied her in her grief.  They grazed amongst the trees and she periodically put her dead baby down to eat a few bites before continuing on, while the others seemed to be protecting her from our prying eyes.  We all felt the sadness of this scene.

None of the guides had ever seen this before!

Less dramatic, but super fascinating and entertaining have been the troops of baboons and monkeys which have been frequently on our routes as well as the hippos which  have become regular nighttime grazers where we have camped by water.  They feed at night, coming in very close to our tents!  Their grunting vocalizations always capture our attention.  Daytime sightings have mostly been limited to eyes and ears with a bit of nose as they mostly stay submerged in water to protect their skin from the sun.

With such a variety of blessings from this animal kingdom it will be easy to forego seeing the cheetahs if the Serengeti does not provide. 

Still it remains a mystery as to where they are hanging out??

Photo from our head guide, Daniel Kyalo, from a previous trip he was leading.

PS: The day after writing this post, we finally came upon cheetahs…two brothers resting in the shade of a thorn tree.  Then in quick succession, several more cheetah sightings.  And on the final drive out of the park, we spotted a rare serval cat, usually a nocturnal critter. The Serengeti lived up to it’s promise.

The Wildlife Knows No Borders

As we all know, humankind relentlessly encroaches upon the habitats of every other living creature.  Here in Africa that awareness is omnipresent.  Conflicting interests of wildlife and humans continue to grow and we all know who suffers.  

Fences are more present than ever and give the African Safari experience more of a zoo like feeling.  We are very fortunate to have Dennis’s oversight of the itinerary of our Safari plans. He set up our safari with as much wilderness camping as possible, meaning far fewer people and vehicles are found in the places we visit.  The downside, of course, is that we have to drive further on even worse roads.

We were the only people at the Tsavo West campsite.

Our Kenya guides tell us they rarely get to lead these kinds of safaris any more since most people do not want to endure the ordeals I have described before.  Our request for the more remote experiences give our guides some additional challenges, but they say they love the opportunity to be on safari in the “old” way……..how it “used to be”.

Ready for breakfast at the Masai Mara bush camp.

The Masai Mara experience is a great example of this.  Our primitive camp (no water, tables etc–and only a “long drop” pooping place (outhouse without the toilet) was our home for two nights.  Our game drives were at times a little congested (3-5 vehicles), but one (where we stampeded the 200 buffalos) was completely alone on a very primitive road. The more common side of this park to visit might have as many as 40-50 vehicles in a popular location!  Our head guide, Daniel, said sometimes vehicles would completely surround lions or cheetahs to the degree that photos without vehicles in the background would be impossible to take!

Smaller parks closer to urban areas are fenced.  Our camp by Lake Naivasha had an electric fence between camp and the lakeshore to keep the hippos out at night when they graze.  The rhino preserve at Solio had more extreme fences and guard posts to deal with poachers.  Ranchers and farmers working on the edges of large parks and wilderness areas lose crops and livestock to the wildlife regularly and it is an ever present problem in those areas.  Wild animals inevitably find themselves wandering into contact with humans.  I find it delightful to encounter wild animals in unexpected places (baboons along sidewalks…warthogs and ostriches beside a country road).

My friend, Ellen Bernstein, who commented on a recent blog, cut her African trip short two weeks early, because of the overcrowded Safari world where there Is now so much insulation from the wild things that the joy of some intimate connection to everything wild is lost.  That is incredibly sad.

This photo by Trudy Rilling-Collins, one of our intrepid safari companions.

“Those trucks can’t follow me up on this cliff!”

Like so many aspects of our humanity,  what we are experiencing here on safari is a mixed bag of joy and depression.  The big cats are an amazing groups of animals that everyone wants to “hunt” and find.  With the modern communication capability in the game preserves, once an animal is sighted the alert goes out by radio and dozens of trucks race to the scene.  Massive clouds of dust are seen over the savanna and the animal is soon surrounded with everything from iPhones to massive telephoto lenses.  To some of us the spatial intrusion seems incredibly disturbing.  However, the lions, leopards and cheetahs seem quite undisturbed as they have all grown used to us with this reality. 

My friend, Ellen Bernstein, who commented on a recent blog, cut her African trip short two weeks early, because of the overcrowded Safari world where there Is now so much insulation from the wild things that the joy of some intimate connection to everything wild is lost.  That is incredibly sad.

My experience was amazement, which then quickly became disgust in the popular Serengeti Plains and Ngorangora Crater, the two parks most synonymous with great African wildlife.  We are so thankful for our many backroad camps on the way to these popular tourist traps.  What is a human being to do with his attraction to the wild places/things and the many negative environmental consequences that follow?

“Pumba!” The Swahili word for warthog is way superior.

Masai People and the Masai Mara

Kenya has 42 tribes of native peoples and only a few are working at preserving their old ways.  The Masai are the largest of these and most well known.  We had the good fortune to participate in their “open house” village teaching tour, a fundraiser for sure, but authentic and open for all questions and photography.  We found the people very friendly and natural in exposing their ways in the modern world….. how they walk the line between their traditional lifestyle and the demands of modern society.

Masai dancers ready to present their “jumping” prowess.

There were some striking similarities with Native American indigenous cultures.  The Masai held a profound connection with the animal kingdom that is seen reflected in the tribe’s own community and family structures.  There was pride in the fact that a significant number of their children who participate in mandated public education have returned from that experience to resume traditional tribal life.

We learned much more than I could fully share in this post, but one story that vividly stuck in my memory was the ritual for young men moving into early manhood, when a boy becomes a warrior, a protector of his clan for the next ten years.  Family life does not begin until sometime after age 25, when the young man can marry (if he owns cattle by then). The warrior years could be spent with girl friends if there were natural attractions.  If pregnancies occurred the tribe would raise those children.  Families chose a man’s the first wife, however, so there was no expectation that girlfriends would become marriage partners.

But, back to the initiation… As the boys grew up they knew their tasks ahead would be severe and life threatening.  Their preparation was in the development of courage and tolerance of pain.  In the old days, each was tasked with the killing of a lion, alone, and this required tremendous strength and stamina in running.  With changing conservation consciousness about wildlife, the government made killing of lions illegal so that practice had to stop.  In fact now many natives take on the role of protectors of the lions, whose individual identities and names are known.  So in these times, boys are, not only required to be great runners, but in training for warriorhood, they learn the skill of jumping high, largely to impress the girls.  This was demonstrated in the chant and dance they did for us and then with us (luckily not requiring any geezer jumping).

Dancers get us into the act!

The most intense part of their initiation is to undergo a circumcision without any anesthetics, and, with the requirement that they cannot show any pain while it is happening!  Not only no crying, but not even any emotional expression of discomfort is tolerated.  Furthermore, this ceremony is witnessed by the whole village!! The level of courage shown by each boy becomes his lifelong identity.

Warriors get ready to make fire with hand drill.

Masai men can have multiple wives, depending on the number of cattle he owns. As noted, the first wife is chosen by a young man’s parents.  If there’s a second wife, she’s is picked by the first wife…and so on.  The headman of the village we visited had nine wives, though few Masai men can afford so many.  

Each woman builds her own house for herself and her children in her husband’s section of the fenced village, and does most of the other daily work while her husband maintains the herd animals. The Masai husband, according to our guide, rotates between the houses of his wives, showing equal respect and love for each of them.  

The Masai lands in southern Kenya run right down to the Masai Mara wildlife preserve, then extend on south into Tanzania.  The British arbitrarily divided the Serengeti drawing the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania in a way such that the two tallest mountains in Africa, Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro, did not both end up in Kenya. To add to the insanity of that history, current Tanzanian law prohibits driving a Kenya registered vehicle into the Serengeti from the Masai Mara.  We paused next to the Tanzanian border one early morning game drive, but had to drive out of Masai Mara the way we came in… backtracking around through Nairobi and south into Tanzania.  Then switched into vehicles registered in that country in order to visit their parks – over 500 miles of extra travel!!

In Tanzania, the Masai are the only people who live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area adjacent to the Serengeti National Park, both because of their historic use and their extraordinarily low impact on wildlife (other than severe overgrazing on the land still available to the tribe since wildlife parks have claimed so much of their historic area).  One sees shepherds out in the bush, striking in their brightly colored dress, either with their goats or cattle, or, walkers between scattered villages, all alone with the giraffes, zebras and other wild animals.

Masai youth walking with the giraffes.

On our drive into Serengeti, we had our third flat tire of the trip and pulled over for repairs. Almost immediately women and young girls, some with babies on their backs appeared out of nowhere to sell crafts and bottles of honey.  Within 15 minutes we had over 10 Masai eagerly flocking to gain our business!

Safaris Are NOT for Sissies

It has become abundantly clear that this IS Africa. As a means of regularly pinching ourselves, Kim and I nudge each other and whisper…… “Dude, we are in fucking Africa!!” Things do not move here as they do back home, with predictability and efficiency. What one thinks will take a day could end up being a day and a half. We really do need to make peace with that to avoid internal agitation and annoyance, much less a full blown emotional melt down.

Let’s get real. Africa is a big place, even Kenya (an average sized African country) feels really big because it takes “forever” to get from one place of interest to another.
There are eleven of us in two vehicles and even just the ordinary needs of eleven people require a lot of stop and go. A stop happens within a half hour of the “Bushy. bushy?” call from a needy individual (translation; “could we have a pee stop?”). The fulfillment of the request happens easily in the bush if there is no danger from lurking predators. However, populated areas there can be significant waiting for a proper place for bladder relief.

Photos taken thru the van window are referred to as “drive by shootings” (credit to our friend Annie).

Traffic on a very congested and undeveloped road system is really bad here. As I wrote in a previous post, the lack of clear traffic rules, the need to be aggressive (or at least assertive) to get anywhere, the speed bumps, the variety of vehicles – from large trucks to motorbikes to mule carts – create a typical third world vehicular chaos. That can put a real thorn in the side of a simple kilometers/hour calculation.

We have grown to expect that no estimate of timing will ever be accurate, and it is frequently seriously underestimated. We often end up pitching our tents in the dark, eating supper right before exhaustion requires immediate sleep. We grab inadequate rest before the predawn wake up call comes and we negotiate the next big day’s goals. The guides do a tremendous job staying on schedule, often driving 10-12 hours a day on the challenging roads.

Morning at Mara on a welcomed layover day.

More than a few times we have questioned the wisdom of this extreme amount of driving, often under very unpleasant circumstance, just so we can be with the animals, which in itself means more driving!

Yet game drives are so very cool! The top goes up and we can stand up whenever we want to feel the flow of air and experience some easy intimacy with the land and its inhabitants. One or two game drives a day is normal so there is simply no escape from the vehicles. It is arduous. It is tiring. It is NOT for sissies!

Would we ever do this again? Probably not in this same way. But it is the best way as a first time experience. Kim thought she would miss out on learning about the African cultures by focusing so heavily on the wildlife. What she has realized is that we are seeing and experiencing a great deal of the Kenyan culture by traveling through it on the ground, rather than by air. If we had the money, we would pay to fly to avoid some of this ordeal. Luckily we cannot insulate ourselves from the pain of ground travel. That may sound strange, but it is true. Seeking comfort clearly insulates us from much of the truth about Life. For most of us there is a painful side to living here on Earth. This has value, and to miss it limits the fullness of our human experience.

This reminds me our our last trip to the Arctic when we were stuck in early winter weather and spent five days waiting for a float plane to reach us. None of us would ever chose to do that again, but none of us wished we had not gone on the trip. Go figure? The challenges this African adventure present to us, no matter how unpleasant, are not making us wish we had not come here. The joy of experiencing this awesome environment and all its inhabitants is soul stirring. We may be ready to come home after seven weeks, but we are delighted to be in this awesome land with all of its wild things. I venture to guess no one amongst us will say, I wish I hadn’t spent all that time and money for “that” experience.

Over 200 buffalo stampeded away from us and then stood across the ravine in a major stare down!

We spent today visiting a Masai Village and learning a tremendous amount about that indigenous culture. Then in later afternoon going on a game drive in the Masai Mara (extension of the Serengeti) which took us into a tremendous experience with 200 buffalo and one male lion amongst many other cool animals and birds. Was that worth the 13 hour torturous drive yesterday that had us all grumbling? You bet it was!!

Fabulous meeting with the Masai in which they shared their history and current realities in addition to dancing for (and with) us!

 

Kenya—Urban challenges to get back to the Bush

We left our four day R&R in Victoria Falls to an evening departure from a brand new and underused Zimbabwe airport and a night time arrival in Kenya……not a great idea but we expected an easy flow as most aspects of this journey had been.

Confusion about the correct entry line for customs and a failed effort to get cash out of an ATM (it ate Dennis’s card) piled onto Trudy’s misunderstanding about her visa needs and led to our collective disconbobulation. All those issues finally resolved, I was greeted by a guy with an Airport Hotel sign who said he was our guy. Long story short, he was working the crowd to get his cab fares and our suspicions were luckily clarified before leaving the parking lot. By the time that was resolved we were all on edge with the hotel shuttle drivers who finally found us.

Nairobi Airport Wildlife Statue

Our drive to the hotel started on a highway which, after weaving through a greenway of many metal sulptures depicting Kenyan wildlife (as well as some real live zebras!) led to a turn off onto a bad “bush drive” road through what seemed like a dark alley, quickly stimulated all the suspicions that arose in dealing with the dishonest cab drivers. None of us could believe that this horrible road could lead us to a reputable hotel. Fear was growing through the whole tribe until we made a right hand turn on to an equally bad road along a cement wall and some of us noticed a “67 Airport Hotel” sign.

Lo and hold, less than a mile down the way we came to the hotel. Our frustrations and anxieties coupled with some language barriers at the desk made for a less than relaxed check in and most of us did not find an easy entry into a restful sleep.

This urban angst continued in the morning when we found we needed to stop back at the airport to retrieve the “eaten” credit card in the midst of morning rush hour traffic which felt like something between L.A. and Mexico City!

It ended up taking us about three hours to get through Nairobi at the front end of the scheduled all day drive to Meru National Park………… total road time becoming over 12 hours! 

The drive was really fascinating for me witnessing the intensity of the urban Nairobi reality transition into its suburbs that then into the countryside, full of crowded towns and villages bustling with activity and full of local color (in the people’s dress as well as the exterior walls of the shops).  Kids and animals and motorbikes; buying and selling and almost begging; businesses that were mostly based in essentials, but had an occasional “upper end” look such as fancy furniture and colorfully painted metal gates….there was a kind of richness in the poverty and litter!

The people were endlessly entertaining, and even though most of my interaction was with people trying to sell me stuff, I really liked them. Their villages were teeming with Life!!

We stopped for lunch at a gift store full of artisan’s work…. reportedly over 2000 participants in the creations of great beauty….. mostly wood carving and textile arts.
In the back of the large store was a corner devoted to “antiques”, masks, instruments, weapons, and ritual objects that had my mouth watering on behalf of a dear friend who had asked me to find him something of beauty and “ritual edginess”.

I spent my lunch hour probing the man who had collected these one of a kind treasures by visiting remote villages all over Kenya. We bantered and bargained and worked out a plan to have some chosen item shipped to California if my friend agreed to the price. This was the first place in all our travels where I had seen anything that felt so authentic, so I was pretty jazzed about my good fortune and the possibility my friend would be touch by what I had found.

Patrick, my enthusiastic sales rep at the African curio shop.

After lunch we continued on our slow, slow journey through the villages, which each had numerous speed bumps requiring virtually full stops. Slow trucks, tractors and animal carts occasionally blocked the way.  By the end of this drive which included road ways that literally seemed under construction, pot holed asphalt that made driving the dirt shoulders faster, obstacle courses of spiked strips of metal and/or 5-8 inch diameter rocks to keep the vehicles off those surfaces, we even encountered a herd of camels in the dark (100 strong)! Our estimates of the number of speed bumps we passed over were from 200–300!

Traffic control in Kenya.

In contrast to the Botswan drive that we had called the drive to hell this one had similar kinds of pain, but with the redeeming elements of cultural interest and a great wildlife park at its end!

Back to the bush! Can you find the giraffe among the baboons?

Life Forms ARE Temporal

Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is the fragility of Life more evident than in Africa. Safari participants are often “treated” to witnessing the ways in which we all eat each other, finding excitement in seeing the predators taking down their prey.

While we have not actually witnessed the chase, we have seen the subsequent feasting and the preliminary dramas of the hunt. We frequently witness the caution and awareness that the potential prey display, instinctually “on alert” to the ever present dangers that threaten their existence.

Many of us have lost that survival mechanism in our insulation from the dangers of the wilderness. Until we hear dramatic stories woven around unconscious choices made from inside the bubbles we create, we tend to think our adventuring is always graced with protection. That is, until a Life ends suddently with no warning.

Guide, Daylos and Camp Manager, Tobias

Our Moreni and Sevuti game drive camps were overseen by a delightful young African, Tobias who we affectionately called Toby. Highly energetic and always smiling, Toby was climbing the ladder towards his guide status from that of camp manager. I will alway remember his common response to my expression of gratitude for his help, “My great pleasure!” His amazingly cheerful work ethic is what I remember most about him. As I handed him a well deserved tip I said to him, “You will be a great guide!”

Debbie and Safari Trip Leader, Dan

After four nights together, Toby left our service upon our return to Muan. We headed towards Victoria Falls and stopped to camp at the Makgadikgadi Pans, a very unusual and enormous dry lakebed, perhaps the site of some future Botswanian Burning Man Festival?? Before retiring to our first nights sleep under the stars, our guide, Dan announced that Toby had been killed upon his return to Muan. We all went into shock and grief – disbelief that his life could have ended so suddenly. We sat in darkening silence around the remaining small fire. An occasional unanswerable question was directed at Dan, but his knowledge of what had happened was very sketchy. While Dan had processed his feelings during our drive that day, he seemed to have come to terms with the loss of his friend relatively quickly, as if the loss of life in his culture was a regular event and the grieving process was more well integrated in his culture than ours……?

Sunset at the Pan

I spent that night and the whole next days drive in some deep internal place reviewing my feeling world and the things which had “taken me down” into feeling my humanity, my fragility, and my identity as an individual human being. How could the loss of an acquaintance be catalyzing such an amazing review of my feeling world? What a gift! What an amazing thing to experience all these feelings!

Through Debbie’s and Trudy’s inspiration and efforts we assembled a card with Toby’s photograph and a $400+ gift for his family (graced miraculously by a man with a bluetooth color printer on the downtown Vic Falls sidewalk who printed some high quality prints of our photo file for a dollar a piece!).

Yesterday upon our return from some downtown shopping needs we had a visit from the Drifters (our outfitter) Muan Lodge manager who announced that Toby was alive!! Long story short, he had been beaten almost to death in a robbery/divorce anger drama which left him toothless with a badly broken body (thought to be dead). A friend who witnessed this dragged his body to the cover of bushes and called for help. Toby is in intensive care.

No guarantees in this Life we live.

The Little Guys

Of course, size matters in many ways, but in the realm of beauty, the little guys really rock! Of course, finding them is sometimes challenging.

Young Baboon

And then we have the guaranteed cuteness of the babies of virtually any species regardless of the dangers they present.

Wild Dog Pups

One of the really special moments early in the Moremi Wildlife Preserve safari was the almost miraculous discovery of a litter of wild dog pups well away from the road. The adult dogs were spotted quite a ways away under some other trees, apparently just taking space from the feasting masses (approximately 10 little ones).

As mentioned and shown in previous blogs we saw the babies of almost every species including hyenas, elephants, zebras, giraffes, hippos, lions, impala, kudus, crocs, wildebeest, warthogs, baboons, and ostrich.

Slender Mongoose

Some of the smaller delights include three types of mongoose, the now famous honey badger, baboon, monkey, monitor lizard, porcupine, jackals, dik diks, steenbok, and springbok, among other deer and antelope.

 

Kudu

 

Becoming a Birder

(Guest blog from Kim – photos from Steve.)

Through our previous journeys, we’ve observed and photographed birds simply as part of the natural world around us.  We’ve tried to document the beautiful call of the tui in New Zealand,  the eagles of Alaska and the Grand Canyon ravens.  But never before have we so faithfully sought after new sightings nor kept a list of the species encountered as here in Africa.

Lilac Breasted Roller

There seems to be an endless supply of new birds… exotic, beautiful, bizarre.  Perhaps it is the same for visitors to Mt. Shasta…”Have we seen the blue jay yet?  Did you get a photo of that remarkable crow?”  

Some birds are familiar, like these pelicans posing in an early morning marsh.

Other birds are completely new. This ground hornbill is the largest of three hornbill species we’ve seen so far.

Our safari partners had extensive guidebooks for identifying new discoveries.  And the guides could name them all…in english and in the local languages…as well as share details of each bird’s life and behavior.  True professionals!

The hamerkop builds a massive nest in the branches of a tree, with many different rooms within the brushy mass. Our bushman guide said that the bird even befriend snakes who move into one of the nest chambers and protect the hamerkop eggs from other predators.

The limit is our own ability to remember what each different bird is called.  

One of several local Bee Eaters

Surely they told us the name for “Spike.”

There’s birds of the dry bush, and birds of the water.  Raptors, songbirds, ducks and cranes.  Unexpected and amazing birds everywhere.  Perhaps we will become “birders” in a more permanent sense… time will tell.

 

 

 

Kori bustard is the national bird of Botswana.

And one more reminding us of our beloved Bald Eagle…….

African Fish Eagle

 

 

The Big Five, or was that Seven

The five most dangerous large animals in Africa are referred to as the “Big Five”. That is also fairly often expanded into the “Big Seven”. One of our guides confused the matter by introducing the “small five” and our tour leader Dan amused us with the “ugly five”. And thus the right brain continues to have its way with systems of generalization that have no real importance. Still, the average safari tourist wants to see the “Big Five” to take home a sense of success in the Big Game Hunt with their cameras.

As the most dangerous animals I always thought the hippo would be included, but came to find it didn’t make the cut. Instead, along with the elephant, lion, leopard and rhino was placed the buffalo. And only when expanded to the Big Seven did the hippo and the wild dog get added. Size does matter, so one might ask how the wild dog got the nod for number seven? Its ferocity is exemplified by the brutality of its hunting habits, not killing its prey before eating it, obviously alive! This gruesome fact makes it more dangerous than the hyena, cheeta or crocodile.

We had amazingly good luck during our first driving safari in Botswana, as we saw all seven within only a few days. The varieties of animals and birds observed in Moremi was nothing short of astounding! In the beginning there was joy in every new animal we saw. It then became a game of what new animal was seen. That morphed into some boredom with the ones we found frequently and finally with an obsession to see what we had not yet encountered. Capturing photos of the new ones carried added satisfaction, the fulfillment of some unspoken desire to get “it all”.

My new camera is a blessing and a curse! Now halfway through our adventure I am finding more pleasure in the binoculars than the camera. To simply watch and store the memories of new behaviors is more joyful than collecting the hundreds (and now thousands) of photos that require evaluation, cropping, enhancing and then most frequently deletion. There is frustration in missing the seeing of something new in the pursuit of “capturing” the perfect photographic image. Those without cameras have a gleeful freedom from the pursuit, and the best of both worlds, knowing that the images captured will be generously shared. But, back to the animals……

My greatest affinity is with the elephants and giraffes, and zebras a close third. They seem to be the iconic animals of uniqueness and beauty. My joy in watching them is not only in both those qualities but in their relationships to each other. The affection amongst them brings out my affection for them. I love the consciousness that this land is their home and the sharing of space, both in our camping and in the sightings in towns. Having warthogs, baboons, monkeys and ostriches commonly roaming the roadsides with the goats, cattle and donkeys is unique and natural. People leave space for the wild ones to co-habitate with the domesticated, until the competition becomes life threatening, and then, as we know, the wild ones suffer.

What I want to express is my joy in walking down the streets of Vic Falls with the baboons, monkeys or warthogs………sharing the space with beings of a different nature. We have to take a cab home after dark because our lodge is on the edge of the bush…but it’s quite OK to avoid unexpected encounters with the lions or elephants who can and do occasionally do harm to the two leggeds. The reminder came just yesterday in the news that a tourist in nearby Chobe was killed by a startled elephant just a few days ago.

This is the reality on this amazing continent…..our connection to the wild things.

Vaya con Lions

Our long drive from Muan to Moremi Wildlife Preserve was punctuated by a speedy finale towards the end of this mondo day, for reasons I did not understand.  We were on a horribly bumpy road and I was seated in the back row of an open, eight seat, covered Safari truck.  

Surrounded by metal bars and cooler latches I was in survival mode with my seat belt tightened more severely than I had ever before felt necessary!  This was the ride from hell, not only in its discomfort, but also a growing frustration in that most all the initial animal sightings were on the left side…..while I was shooting (photos) from the right.  What I was getting on the right was the westerly sun adding to my misery.

The urgency of this sprint was due to a radio call from another guide that Daylos, our guide and drive knew….. a “heads up” that a pride of lions was feeding on an elephant kill.  We were the third vehicle to find the secluded spot which had Daylos zig zagging through the bush, off road. We spent the better part of the next hour watching, filming and learning a lot about these big cats.

When we finally left our spot to another truck waiting for a better “perch” we headed off in search of another sighting – a leopard eating an impala up in a tree.  Daylos once again amazed us with his knowledge of this immense park and found gold just a short time later.  What an amazing first afternoon in Moremi!  

The very next day we came upon the same pride of lions lazing around a stream, lethargic in their recent feasting.  Our marginal vantage point the evening before enabled a head count of 16 or so.  We could now see the larger picture….. 24 lions of all ages (if they were actually all there).  We hung with them for the better part of an hour, at times within 5 meters of some, until they began to migrate across the stream begrudgingly getting feet wet.  The small cubs had to swim a bit while even the strongest could not make a clean leap.

Later in the day we again came upon part of “our” pride laying in the grass watching a herd of red lechwes, with interest.  These deer like creatures were anxious (perhaps by the scent?) and moved away leaving the lions content to way in wait for others, upwind.

Already, we had begun to recognize some of these lions as individuals and the repeated visits gave us our first lessons in lion behavior….. very cool.

Leopard sightings (three in all) were exciting, but less interesting in their solitary nature.  Two sightings had them in trees where they seek rest and refuge.  The third found him by a waterhole and we followed him through the bush, off road.  He seemed completely unfazed by our intrusion into his space.

We have been blessed by the big cats here in Botswana!

Living Closer to the Bush

Our bush walk the first morning of our stay in the Okavango Delta began with a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) ride through the marshy reeds and grasslands.  After an initial 5-10 minute hike across this island we are camping on, we met our mokoro “poler” guides who took us across the shallow waters to the neighboring island where a more interesting (longer) bush walk opportunity exists.  The use of 15′ wooden poles reminded me of the gondoliers of Venice and the guides did a great job in navigating extremely narrow channels.  The early morning lighting created an even more magical experience.

On our second days’ mokoro journey we passed through a lagoon with a big bunch of hippos.  We huddled together on the opposite side of the lagoon from the very large, unpredictable animals and stayed only long enough to get our fill of photos before resuming our journey to that days’ bush walk.

Bush walks where there are predators or even just large wild animals require a kind of caution and humility, which Frog embodied beautifully in his use of the word “respect”.

This consciousness is critical for our safety.  We would always walk in single file in order to give the lions the perception that we were a large multi legged creature that could be dangerous and not to be messed with.  In our encounters with large animals such as elephants and giraffes we would always give wide berth and particularly give space to females with young.  Frog made it clear that our goal was not to have a maximum number of animal sightings so much as finding a deeper feeling of our connection to the wilderness environment through greater awareness and attending to the signs of nature.  He could read tracks to a high degree of certainty about events between animals and the relative timing of things.  We saw many fewer animals on our walk the second day than Frog expected. He attributed this to the presence of a lion pride he could tell was nearby, causing most other animals to hide.

Our three nights on the small island called Perere were an interesting mix of intimacy with nature including the nighttime visitations by elephants and other critters less clearly identifiable…along with real beds, sheets and pillows in our large tents.  Heavenly comfort!  The mokoro travel was a real highlight, as was the vulnerability of the animal kingdom’s free roam of our camp.

Our three hour speed boat trip back the mainland was thrilling on several levels: beginning with the high speeds through narrow channels; throngs of birds launching into fearful flight prompted by our sudden appearance; hippos, crocs and eagles galore; and the recovery from an empty gas tank a half hour from our destination!  I left the Delta feeling it may well have been the highlight of our whole African journey, but that was immediately challenged by our upcoming trip to Moremi Wildlife Preserve.

 

Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Okavango Delta

The common ground with these two “bushmen” we had the honor of walking with had nothing to do with the specific places in which they lived and led us through.

Their remarkable gifts had everything to do with the utter respect they held for all of life.  Every living thing was seen in relationship to the whole and the heart-felt place from which they each spoke in combination with their knowledge of the unique “medicine” each plant and animal possessed transmitted the consciousness that many of us in the Western world seek.  We have so, so much to learn to regain our balance and find our “right” place in this world, so in need.

Kaugo ( phonetically spelled),our short, light skinned Kalahari bushman guide, immediately touched us with his open hearted smile and his use of the phrase, “my friend”.  He greeted us dressed in a loincloth skin with bare legs, carrying the tools (bow, spear, and his fire making kit) of his ancestors to aid in the historic journey of his tribal story, and…….the modern shirt of a lodge proprietor/park guide!  Our bush walk with him focused on the plants and animals of his dry semi desert homeland.  He offered demonstrations of making cordage from a plant we came upon as well as starting a fire with a hand drill.  The pace of his walk about enabled us all to drop into a deeper state of awareness and we were all quite touched by his loving presence.

Frog, (not my recently deceased cat), but our tall and black Delta bushman grew up around the waters of the Okavango River Delta.  Self taught in the indigenous family clan, he is an amazing guide in leading us through his homelands, knowing the flora and fauna intimately.  For a man in his 30’s he possesses the wisdom of an elder medicine man.  Like Kaugo, Frog is an skilled story teller, and has made himself available to hang out with us informally in the Perere Camp where he works away from his family in Maun.  His respect for the animals was reflected this morning during our  first bush walk here when we came upon a pack of female and young elephants.  Because he had witnessed the death of an arrogant an careless guide by a mother elephant he led us cautiously on a mile long detour to respectfully give adequate space to keep the peace.  When we first arrived here yesterday, Frog explained that this land belongs to the animals, and they deserve our respect which in turn will ensure our safety.  Encounters with elephants, hippos, lions and leopards during the night here in camp were each to be handled in unique ways enabling a safe return from the toilet (the only reason to be out of the safety of our tents).  I feel a deep love for this young man, Frog, and all that his life in the bush has to teach.

The Challenge of Sitting

Any devoted Buddhist practitioner would tell us the importance of being able to sit still and pay attention.  This journey should by all logical reasoning lead us to some greater enlightenment given the immense amount of time spent sitting…… in airports, in airplanes, in transit to motels, in safari vehicles, in compounds and camps where leaving them is forbidden.  We hikers are frustrated with the immense amounts of extraordinary food and very little opportunity to burn those calories.

Lunch at the harbor in Cape Town.

Serious wildlife photographers plant themselves in the environment they calculate will be the place for the encounters they hope to film, and then, sit and wait.  How will one situate oneself in the perfect place to see lions mating?  And then lucky us….. drive up to the waterhole and within five minutes have the lions we were blown away to even see, going at it!  Go figure!!

Viewing area for the waterhole at Halali Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The kind of sitting in nature some of us are used to up in the tundra of the arctic is sweet and meditative, outdoors in the immensity of wilderness.  Here in Africa we are constantly reminded, it is not safe.  Grizzly bears are a different kind of predator than lions.  So we sit in our vehicles, and, it is not nearly as enjoyable.  Here in Africa the cost in dollars and in time to “be with” the animals is large.  Still, we are in the adventure of new territory and learning a great deal through all this sitting.

Viewing the Cape of Good Hope.

My daughter, Heidi the cardiac nurse, told me regarding the 25 hours of air travel to get here to take baby aspirin and wear compression socks (due to the family gene pool of varicose veins).  I think I will follow that same advise during our 500km drive into the Kalahari tomorrow, as it sounds like a 10+ hour driving day to us.

Even though we have been luxuriating in great accommodations with wonderful food, I am looking forward to sleeping on the ground and finding out what life in the bush here really feels like.  To those of us pushing 70 (or beyond) it feels like we are finally “acting our age” in the pampering ways of our first weeks in Africa.  Still, the insulation from the environment that come with that territory of comfort is not completely aligned with the soulful engagement with the land we came to explore.  Yes, we are happily on a camping safari, but the question I am holding is how uncomfortable might this get?  Will I find some balance between the sitting and some kind of healthy movement? Will the mosquitos be worse than in Alaska?  Survival is not in question, but what about the human “Holy Grail” of comfort?

Learning About a New Place

For veteran world travelers, learning about a new country is second nature.  For your average river rat, every river, while different, operates according to the natural laws of water.  However, assumptions about the human world are neither accurate or advisable!  What I found has been that the people here in Namibia, for the most part, are wonderful with the one caveat being that government employees are generally slow and not particularly interested in public service. One has to be proactive in the learning—ask questions and read the fine print to learn the new ways.
 
Our first day in Etosha National Park offered some objective teaching.  After entering through the gateway arches and registering we drove to a secondary headquarters to pay our fees.  Shortly thereafter we came upon our first animal sightings—zebra and giraffes.  It seemed logical to open the sliding van door and step out for better viewing and photography.  Within short time a guide with some tourists pulled up beside us and said, “What, you are not afraid of lions?”  Her style of ushering us back in did not deliver a clear message other than it’s not a good idea to get out….ever, even to pee.  The next morning, rangers showed up at our lodge to issue us a citation for breaking park rules. They threw the book at us for the stiffest fine allowable.  Photo evidence and some serious attitude came with the citation for $75USD.  Pee jars in the van are now considered the safest way to travel!
 
We were quite blessed that first day, seeing most of the primary animals except for rhinos and big cats.  By late afternoon when we arrived at the Halali visitor center in the center of the park, we’d viewed elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, zebra, eland, ostrich, springbok, oryx, and warthogs……and, an abundance of most.  
 
At Halali we found the camp’s famed waterhole, with a viewing area on the side of a hill where visitors can look down on the pond which is illuminated after dark. This provided an incredible opportunity to see many animals who came in for evening drinks and early morning activities. The lights remained on all night and the animals were apparently used to them.  Rock and bench seating was behind fencing that made it seem safe in the midst of predators.  
 
The pattern was that each species would show up, drink their fill and leave directly. First came the zebras as evening began to fall.  Then a shy pair of steenbok, tiny deer-like creatures with big ears. Later after nightfall, a family of elephants came in with their enormous presence and stayed to graze a bit.  Then a black rhino arrived with a jackal and wild dog close behind. And later yet, a white rhino showed up simultaneously with a spotted hyena.  The black rhino was uptight with the heckling wild dog and tried to chase it away.  The other rhino was bigger and unfazed by its company. What a treat to be able to watch the different dances of behavior.  The troop of elephants included two babies.  We stayed up watching as long as our heavy eyelids would allow.  Kim and I returned before dawn to watch some more.  I remain in awe of each animal’s extraordinary beauty!  These are not bedraggled zoo inmates, or big screen images.  It is hard to imagine the real live creatures…. unafraid, wild and free…intimidating at times, and commanding respect always!
 
Our experiences to this point were so immense that our hunger for more was greatly diminished, but we had not yet seen any big cats.  On both days, we drove from waterhole to waterhole to see the greatest concentrations of animals. On the second day, in early afternoon, we pulled up to a human improved waterhole and found a pair of lions not too far from the parking area!  Many others, mostly zebra and springbok, stood off at a distance…. all eyes on the big cats. Then, much to our surprise, the male lion mounted the female and did the deed.  He wasted no time, and, she appeared to be totally into it.  We were awe struck, not just from the event itself, but by our extraordinary good fortune to be in the right place at the right time! Dennis claimed full credit for our itinerary and suggested that we take the next day off to digest it all.

Meeting the Fauna

Finally a field trip into nature!  Taking the coast road around False Bay, through Simon’s Town, I had a glimpse of an urban baboon up on a rock wall, perhaps no different than seeing a monkey in Costa Rica or a raccoon back home.  Nevertheless it led to a brief rush of joy and set the tone for the rest of the day.  Our time at Boulder Beach was nothing short of fantastic in its beauty and the resident flock of African penguins.  Actually…….

“A group of penguins in the water is called a ‘raft’ – a group of penguins on land is called a waddle. Other collective nouns for penguins include: rookery, colony, and huddle.”

The waddle was very entertaining with its diversity of walking styles, and, the smaller rafts were amazing in their speed and agility.  On the path to the main beach we passed a cute rodent like animal called a Rock Hyrax.  While lunching on a restaurant balcony we watched several  passing Southern Wright Whales and two Cape Clawless Otters.  Delightful meal enhanced by the sea creatures.

Our drive to the Cape of Good Hope was capped off in the lighthouse parking lot by some bad boy baboon behavior as the two mischievous misfits had their way with vehicles they were attracted to, looking for ways in for food they should never have tasted…..primate intimidation!  This was in high contrast to the troop of baboons we met on our hike between the Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope who were foraging for roots and bulbs, grooming each other and passing within feet of us minding their baboon business.

From the Cape Point viewing spots we saw many more Southern Wright Whales and dolphins playing as they do–quite a show!  As if that weren’t enough, the ride back north exiting the park was punctuated by the Common Elands and a flock of Ostriches.  Bob, our great white hunter, unsatisfied by the drive-by shooting decided to pursue the big birds into the bush.  Bad idea!  They tired of his pursuit and turned on him, chasing him en mass back to his car!  

Common Eland

We were surprised by this abundance of wildlife so relatively close to the urban populations around Cape Town, leading to even more excitement about what we are to be heading into.  

On to Namibia and the Etosha Pan 🙂

Touched by the Culture

My Ambien induced sleep on the plane worked its magic to partially neutralize the anticipated jet lag from the 25 hours in the air during our 33 hour journey to Cape Town. Greeted by a manual transmission in our South African rental car, in which I was the primary driver, driving on the left side of the road reality as well as an obscure mechanism to find the reverse gear had me feeling like “toast” by the time we found our house exchange 35 minutes from Cape Town. Our five days here would prove to be invaluable in the acclimation to South Africa.

Crazy city driving while being a tourist was challenging, fatiguing and an effective means to stay totally present.  Once having “mastered” the manual transmission, my comfort on the wrong side of the road and ability to mimic the local driving aggression grew rapidly.

South African Nobel Peace Prize Winners

I love the sense of belonging to a diverse and colorful world.  While this is not the environment in which I could thrive, still I am embracing my minority status and finding a real appreciation for the richness and adaptability of our species.  Visits to the District 6 Museum and the Robben Island Prison that housed Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners for the better part of two centuries has been a real education in the struggles of the native peoples.  I have had a soulful encounter with my own humanity revolving around both the collective struggle for racial (human) equality and the joyful expression of Life through this new cultural stew.

Our guide on Robben Island was a political prisoner there with Mandela.

Most touching of all so far has been the witnessing of street musicians and particularly a group of young men who showed us not only a lot of talent in their acapella song and dance, but a brotherhood and soulful community that was channeling their immense youthful energy in a very beautiful way.  I was so touched that I felt compelled to appreciate each one of them personally with a hand shake and few words of praise.  This kind of extroverted behavior was new to me but the drive to support these young men came from a deep place within, an “elder move” to bless the youth, as we say in my men’s group back home.

The Dark Continent Chapter 1

Our journey into the African bush technically began in the Middle East, with an evening in Dubai revealing a colorful chapter of human behavior I will call the artificial folly. We were never able to get more than five minutes from the ginormous international airport (perhaps the largest in the world). What we saw and learned during our eight hour layover on our way to and from the Emirates Hotel in which we were given a room, shower and meal was quite an awakening.

The 103 degrees we stepped into upon leaving the conditioned airport space at 10PM was a shock and reminder that the Middle East is not really a friendly summer environment! The creation of this city includes almost every imaginable effort to recall the beauty of the natural world as well as the human twists of extremes, including the world’s tallest building and and a portion of the city built on sand islands in the shape of a palm tree! Man made creeks and waterfalls mimic both nature and the canals of Venice giving the golf courses and downtown shopping their own unique features.
Eight hours in Dubai was enough. Get me to the African bush!!

 

The Happy Ending

Paul is up at first light every morning to make the coffee. “The good news is that the weather cannot get any worse” he announces cheerfully one morning; the next “The bad news is it can only get worse—5000ft ceiling and 20 mile visibility!” And, what occurs to me…… Bettles and the pass each have their own conditions, so what it looks like here is pretty irrelevant. This is my internal mechanism to avoid further disappointment, as we had a few days back. I just want to hear the roar of the Otter’s engine and see it breaking through the skyline into my view.

fishfryBuzz, one of the camp “worker bees”, decides to break out his fishing gear and before we even know what he’s up to he lands an 18 inch Lake Trout! The word rings out through the camp and Scott joins him. Within a couple hours they are deciding “enough”, and, throw back the sixth equally large fish. They shift gears to wood gathering, both for warmth and the fish fry. The fish tacos fill our bellies and provide a much needed lift of spirits. Apparently, we won’t starve out here, even if our lake freezes and the float planes cannot get back in to lift us out.

By this time we are thinking about possible emergency rescue measures…… jet helicopters dispatched from Prudoe Bay….. money being no object….. National Park choppers for search and rescue, but the sad truth is that those things never happen up here…. unless, someone is actually dying. In truth, we are nowhere near the implementation of such extreme measures, much to the dismay of those who might pay whatever the cost.

As you know, we made it out….. on the fifth day. The bad weather finally broke. We found out from our pilot that Brooks Range Aviation had 40 people stranded out in the bush, some of whom had not only been out longer than us, but had no SAT phone; some who were at a lake that actually did freeze requiring them to hike to a deeper one still accessible to a float plane; others who had food but no fuel or firewood to cook it; and some who watched their food (caribou) disappear to a hungry Grizz …… so, all things considered we actually had it pretty easy.

noatakgroupWe all missed our flights back home and were prepared to spend one more night in the Bettles hangar, but much to our surprise, the folks at Brooks Aviation had a plane waiting (from Wright Air, handling the small commercial flights) to scoot us on back to Fairbanks. Seems they had had enough of us from the lower 48, who just didn’t seem to fully understand being at the mercy of the elements the same way as those born and raised part of the food chain did.

Sea of Anxiety

Now, the third day into our wait for the float plane pick up at Matcharak Lake, our minds drift on a sea of anxiety, fearing more bad weather while hoping for enough clearing ……just three hours would do. The weather pattern is fickle. Good weather here at the lake has very small meaning. Perhaps even the pass is clear, but what is the ceiling in Bettles? Can the planes even get off the ground?

With the snow flurries and the wind coming and going, and the hours of anything resembling warmth diminishing daily, we spend many hours in the tents. Most of us read a lot and trade books back and forth. Kim and I play a lot of Rummy 500 and then cribbage (without a board).

My mind goes where it goes and I just watch it, to see how seriously I will take it. Reading is not to big a part of how I spend my time. Distraction is not much of an exploration. When the fears rise to serious levels I wonder if I will live to see my grandchildren again?

imageOur food supply is still OK, meaning that even though we have eaten the emergency food for two extra days of waiting, we have rationed what is left to two small meals a day and it seems three more days of some eating are possible. The food situation is not too worrisome yet as I note that some of my pre trip thoughts regarding my 190 pound chubbiness with both an appreciation of extra insulation and a desire to return to my optimal “playing weight”. Voila!! A golden opportunity to manifest my imaginings. I know how to fast; have done it several times before. But when low blood sugar arrives, look out! Recent reality checks reveal a strong trend toward quick crankiness!

I, semi-consciously, chose not to fill my mind with the thoughts of others through books on this trip, preferring to just watch my own. I sometimes call this my meditation “practice”, lacking any other formal, spiritual discipline. The one book I did throw into the dry bag on the way out of town was Buddhist Anam Thubten’s, “No Self, No Problem”. Waking up to a snow covered tent for the second straight morning, my monkey mind took me into that most definitive No Self possibility! Fearful thinking is nothing new to me, but when circumstances such as these surround fearful tendencies of thinking (i.e. worst possible outcomes) death can easily seem uncomfortably near.

What are my lingering attachments that impede letting go?
What relationships have not had adequate expressions of love?
What remains in need of my forgiveness?
What future experiences are still deeply desired?

Suddenly the NFL opener does not seem too important!

Getting Out

Chapter III — Getting Out

Float planes usually land on lake water unless a river is remarkably calm and deep (not true for us on the Noatak). The quarter mile portage was, as it had been seven years ago, arduous. Each of us needed to make four or five trips with as much gear as we each could manage to schlep, on backs and in arms. While there was a trail of sorts, the terrain was quite uneven and wet in places. The rafts were most difficult, particularly the long skinny one which only had handles on each end. Three of us carried it overhead (or more accurately on our heads) in single file. It was an exhausting day.

We had spent three nights at our previous camp as it was spacious and we were in a good weather pattern. The Brooks Aviation float planes were in the air daily and our SAT phone contact with them indicated “reasonable” weather ahead. There was no indication we needed to alter our schedule to beat bad weather to Matchurak. We were intending to clean the rafts the afternoon of the portage, organize our gear, and fly out the next day.

imageThe morning of our anticipated departure we awoke to a light snowfall……….. and when we contacted Brooks Aviation they told us that Bettles was fogged in. Then it began……the
waiting.

When the snow subsided later in the morning, we were in a mix of feelings amidst the awesome beauty and the uncertainty of getting out to catch our flights home. When we next contacted Brook’s Aviation with our update on the Matchurak weather, they reported planes still being grounded, but the mid afternoon call indicated they were clear to take off and making a run at getting through the pass. We were elated and moved right in to breaking down our camp and organizing the gear.

We waited and waited, watching the eastern sky towards the passes. From our vantage point we could not tell how bad the visibility might be? Finally, around 6PM we began to lose hope. The call to Bettles confirmed that they had been unable to get through the pass and we moved into setting our camp back up once again.