Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Overland Africa: The Wildlife

When thinking of a trip to Africa, most people think of all of the amazing animals you can see that live nowhere else (in the wild). I certainly did, and anytime I talked to someone back home, they wanted to know what animals I'd seen. 
Warning: this will be a long one, lots of animal encounters to mention.
The first week of my trip, from Cape Town up to Swakopmund, I saw very few animals. Usually, we would be driving along, I'd been half asleep or deep in conversation or daydreaming, and our tour leader, Patrick, would say to look out the window, zebra or oryx or springbok. All 13 of us would press our faces to the windows on whichever side of the truck the animals were and stare eagerly...and then stare harder, scanning the horizon, trying to find where the animals were. It was usually off in the distance, and their camouflage abilities were impressive.

In Sossusvlei, Namibia, where we hiked up Dune 45 for sunrise and 6 of us hiked Big Daddy dune, we got a little closer to some oryx. They were wandering around by the parking lot, looking for shade. I took a lot of pictures of my first real encounter with an African animal (the squirrels at our camp grounds didn't count).


Upon entering Etosha Park in our truck with the huge windows on the sides, which we opened all of (these drives were extremely windy), we saw some zebras, close enough to actually identify them. Zebras and springbok, how cool! And then over behind some trees, giraffe! We all took tons of pictures, and then drove on to our camp ground, near a watering hole. Patrick told us about the Big 5, the animals that if you are hunting them, they are more likely to kill you first. Lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo. The first 4 of these can be found at Etosha. But if you are curious about the deadliest creature in Africa, that would be the mosquito. 

We had a little time between lunch and our afternoon game drive, so a couple of us went over to the closest watering hole and watched whole dazzles of zebra (actual term) in and around the water. The sound they make is like a car alarm, not at all what you would expect, and made us laugh every time. We'd been told how amazing the watering hole could be after dark, so we were excited to come back that night to watch.

On the afternoon game drive, we saw many more zebras and springbok, a few more giraffe, and then at one of the watering holes, the first of our Big 5, a black rhino. Black rhinos are critically endangered, so seeing one is a rare treat. Naturally, there were also zebras and springboks around that watering hole, but keeping their distance. There's a funny thing that happens, and it doesn't take very long, where you get bored of zebras and springboks (and later on, impala as well). They are all over the game parks in southern Africa, and after a short while, you don't stop the truck anymore to see them, unless there is a large herd of springbok crossing the road and you have to stop (this happened a few times). Once when we stopped for a dazzle of zebras right next to the road, we found some of them were more excited about having an audience than we were of being one. 

We drove on, watching as a storm gathered on the horizon, unsure if it would hit us or not. After a little while, someone called out, "elephant!" This was required a little squinting again, but there in the tall grass was a very old, very ashen elephant. Male elephants often live alone, while females and calves travel in herds, so we were pretty sure this was a bull, and the second of our Big 5.

As we headed back toward camp, the wind picking up and the dark clouds approaching, everyone was on lookout duty, calling out if they saw any animals we should stop for. Right near the entrance to the camp grounds, lying a little ways off the road, was a cheetah. She (we think) was leisurely watching some further off springbok, her paws muddy, maybe from a recent trip to a watering hole. She wasn't too bothered by us, actually posed pretty nicely for us. Not one of the Big 5, but an add on in what is sometimes called the Big 7 (along with Wild Dogs, rare now and not often seen).

At camp we all washed up, and made it over to the nearby watering hole to see an incredible sunset. 

Back by the truck as we were eating dinner, we kept hearing animal sounds and seeing other people rush by saying there were lions. Everyone tried to eat quickly, wash dishes, and flap them so we could get back over to see what was going on. Despite our rush, it was pretty dark when we returned to the watering hole. This one, for viewing, has a floodlight that stays on at one end all night, and there is a strict rule about being totally quiet, so as not to scare away the animals. You can imagine how well a big group of people does at staying totally quiet. Right when we got there, a group of elephants was in the water, but they didn't stick around for very long.

For a while, I thought we were doing okay, some shuffling around as people switched spots, some whispers, the usual. Despite this, there were no animals to see. Little by little, spectators went off to bed, much of our group included. A few of us remained, and we found better seats to wait it out, with some wine to keep us alert. Somehow, we started to get louder in our conversations (I contend it was because nothing was happening, there was nothing to see). At some point, a park official came to ask us to keep it down or take the party to the bar. We all felt scolded like the teacher caught us goofing off in the back of the class, and became totally silent for about 5 minutes. When still no animals showed up, we gave up and went to our tents. A couple of us got up just before dawn to see if that's when the animals come, but a lone jackal is all we got. Jackals are pretty cute though, I wanted to adopt one and take it home.

We had another game drive around Etosha that day and saw many more zebras, springboks, and giraffes. A little ways past a tower of giraffe (actual term), someone said there was a lion. Lions were number 1 on my list of animals I wanted to see, so I was psyched. But it turned out this was another case of faraway animals that camouflage very well. There were at least 2 lionesses on the prowl around 200 yards away. I wasn't satisfied. 

Besides our lions, we saw wildebeest, and we began to learn the differences between the kinds of antelopes in the area. The ubiquitous springbok with their white bellies, impala, kudu with their very impressive curving horns, hartebeest whose horns can look like a heart from a certain angle, and klipspringer the cute mini-deer.





After Etosha, soon we were in the Okavango Delta, where we left our truck behind and were poled in mekoro through rivers out to an island to spend the night. That evening, we climbed back into the mekoro and poled over to the hippo pool. On the way there, I was hoping there would be something to see, worried I would miss them. No need to worry, there were many hippos, a bloat of hippos (actual term). We all pulled up together at what was deemed a safe distance. Then some of the hippos came closer to investigate. They bared their teeth (only used in defense and fighting, not needed for eating grass) and splashed around, showing their dominance. None of us needed convincing; we have seen videos of hippos killing crocodiles, lions, anything that comes at them. Setting up our tents that afternoon with enough space between them in case hippos came walking through at night was frightening enough.

Up close (through my zoom lens), they look pretty funny though, with their whiskers and bug eyes. Sometimes they look more like Muppets than real animals.

No hippos did walk through out camp ground (that I know of), even though the fire was not kept burning all night (the way we'd been told it would be). We got back into the mekoro with all of our stuff and moved on to our next camp ground in the Delta, which was fancy for us, with more permanent tents erected, big enough for cots with sheets and quilts. My tent-mate and I went to bed that night and almost immediately got back up, because we could hear noises outside, rooting around and splashing. We went out and looked down toward the river, trying to make out where the elephants were (we'd been told they were in the area), but only thought we saw a moving shadow between the trees. So we went back to bed in the tent with the screen windows letting in lots of light from the full moon overhead. We woke up to crashing through the trees right by our tent around 2am. We both sat up and looked at each other and looked outside as this huge dark figure came into view right outside our window, legs almost as tall as the tent, tusks, a trunk, all silhouetted by the moonlight. The elephant stopped for a moment, negotiating its way between the tents, and then continued on up the hill, tearing at nearby trees. This was my closest encounter with a large animal on the trip, and it was incredible. (I don't have pictures from that night, but here's another elephant in the trees).


In Botswana, we also drove to Chobe Park, which is on the banks of the Chobe River that divides Botswana and Namibia for part of their border. Driving into the park area, we were immediately greeted by a herd of elephants (actual term 😕). Since we'd only seen isolated elephants up until this point, so many at once was really exciting. They were on both sides of the road, and then crossed the road, elephants everywhere we looked. 

The lodge where we set up camp was really swanky (not the part where our tents were pitched, but the main building and spa and pool). We had seen velvet monkeys (aka blue ball monkeys, accurately named), warthogs, and mongeese wandering around the grounds all day, even into the bar, so we knew we were in the midst of the park. We'd also been warned about snakes, to use our headlamps and stomp loudly when walking around at night. 
Excited to have free WiFi, many of us spent time in the bar area after dinner on our devices, headlamps handy for the walk back to camp. As I scrolled through Instagram, a huge black thing came crawling up and over my knee. I jumped up, shaking my legs to get it off and shrieking. My friends were alarmed, trying to figure out what was going on, and some of the staff came over to see what the fuss was about. One of them laughed and said it was just a big cricket, and then they all laughed. I did too, but in a shaky way, because while a cricket is harmless, it was the size of my fist (not exaggerating) and scared the hell out of me. I was jumpy the rest of the night, much to the amusement of my friends. (The chameleon below is much cuter).

For our game drive the next day, we left our truck behind and loaded into 2 large jeep-like vehicles with open sides. Our safari guide asked what we were interested in seeing, and I immediately replied, "Lions." We also said leopards, buffalo, more cheetahs, but number 1 was lions. We drove into the park, started to go one way, then something came through on the driver's walkie-talkie, and he turned to go another way. All of a sudden, there was a lioness laying on the side of the road, just relaxing. We pulled up and I was on the right side about 3 yards from her. She was magnificent, her eyes tawny and sharp, her ears alert, listening, and while she seemed relaxed, she could pounce at any moment. I was captivated, taking pictures and watching her. When she made eye contact with me, it was incredibly intimidating, I struck a submissive pose, head bowed, eyes down, darting up to look at her. Someone behind me noticed and laughed. 

Our one jeep was the only vehicle there for 5 minutes or so, until word spread and others pulled up. She got uneasy or bored and walked away down the road once more people disturbed her morning. 

With our request met so easily, we thought this will be an epic game drive. Actually it just peaked early, and for the rest of the ride we saw a happy meal of impala (not an actual term, but they are known as the McDonalds of the bush -fast food), far away hippos, vultures, a jackal, a whole business of mongeese (actual term) which included tiny babies, and ground hornbills (which sound like they are laying a base track for some club music). 

That afternoon/evening, we took a booze cruise down the Chobe River. Between glasses of wine, we saw hippos out of the water, most with little white birds accompanying them. And finally another of our Big 5, a buffalo. There were some lazy looking crocodiles and a breed of waterbuck most recognizable for the white circle on their rear ends (known to us as toilet seat bums). There were also sightings of semi-inebriated and fun loving Intrepid travelers in the wild.


On the rest of my trip, I was in cities, with less (but still some) wild animals. The most prevalent were baboons. Anything you may have heard about them is true: they will steal anything they can right off of you, they can be violent, they are not cute and just posing for you. When I passed them walking down the road in Vic Falls, I crossed to the other side (it's like that). In Cape Town, when I went down to the Cape of Good Hope, we were warned on the bus that they will steal your food and you likely would see them attack someone. We were also warned about birds that would take your food, and no one paid much attention. While wandering around there, watching people get close to take pictures, I saw one baboon grab a girl's hair and pull hard. 
I got food from the takeaway place beside the restaurant and was eating in the designated "baboon safe" area, but had a bird I can't identify swoop in for part of my sandwich. I was doing a decent job of fending them off, but one distracted me by attacking someone else nearby and another took the opportunity to grab a bite, I felt its claws on my hand. 

What I haven't mentioned yet are the Cape Penguins. Down at Boulders Beach, you can see a waddle of penguins (actual term) on the beach, sunning themselves. Having a special affection for penguins, from my many years of service at a certain publishing company, I had to see them, and was not disappointed. 

I'm sure there are more animals I saw here and there that I've left off, but this is a pretty good summary. There are just so many more to see, and I'm still not satisfied in my Lion quest, I want big maned male lions, I want cubs. Mufasa Mufasa Mufasa! Plus my Big 5 is still incomplete without a leopard. Africa is a huge and beautiful place, and I can't wait to go back. But for now, thanks for reading!

Next time, the excursions and activities. Spoiler: I ate sand, and I thought I might die (but I didn't, it's okay mom and dad!). 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Overland Africa: The Truck, Camping, Cooking, and Basic Facilities

I've just gotten back from a month in southern Africa. My plan was to blog along the way, but the reality was such an activity and fun packed month that I barely had a chance to jot down thoughts let alone write out blog entries. There was also pretty spotty "African WiFi," so that I rarely had a strong enough signal to post anything. So instead of a chronological account, I'm going to post retrospectively by theme. First up, the truck, camping, cooking, and basic facilities.

For our overland trip, 13 of us plus a tour leader, a cook, and a driver rode in a truck (not a bus or a van) for 3 weeks through 4 countries. Any time anyone referred to our vehicle as a bus, our leader, Patrick, would say, "what bus?" They are very emphatic about the fact it is a truck. Unlike what I'd thought, the outside lockers are for camping, cooking, and cleaning equipment. In the back of the truck, there is a wall of lockers for all of the participants to keep their stuff, using their own locks. It turned out the lockers were a little bigger than advertised, so I had some extra space, which was nice.
When we got onto the truck the first day, some of us staked out spots which would be ours throughout the trip. Other people preferred to float around, switching seats each day. Because we were only 13, and the truck is built to hold up to 22 participants, most of us had double seats to ourselves. The seats in the middle of the truck have a table in the middle, like on some trains.

Some of the driving days were up to almost 10 hours (including stops), and some were pretty quick. We all got used to the drives, whatever the length, creating our routines. For me, the morning was nap time (since we usually started the day between 6 and 7:30am, sometimes earlier), and then around 10 or 10:30am, most of us had a mid-morning snack. Lunch would be around 1pm, and depending on the drive, we might be doing a quick roadside stop, or we might have gotten to our destination for the night. If we were driving on, there might be an afternoon stop in a town somewhere to stock up on provisions (snacks, water, wine or beer), and then afternoon snack time would be around 4:30pm. In the back of the truck, we had a cooler to keep things we bought, but which was usually completely packed with wine and beer. We would try to squeeze in at least one large water bottle to share.

During the course of the day, we sometimes had real rest stops, like in small towns, but not always. There were often long distances between stops, and requesting a "bush toilet" stop became common. I held out for a long time on this, but at a certain point, you just need to pee, and you get used to finding a bush to squat behind, using some tissue, and coming back to the truck for hand sanitizer. In the beginning, everyone walked pretty far away and tried to find a totally isolated spot. By the end, we were all crouched within a few feet of each other behind sparse foliage. Everyone had seen everyone else's butt, it just didn't matter anymore. We got very close quickly.

During the long rides, a lot of people would listen to music and some people were able to read (I'll never understand that). Many of the roads were unpaved and very bumpy, we got used to our "African massage" as we bumped along between destinations. I would sometimes try to write notes or journal in the truck, but my handwriting was even worse than usual. Long in depth conversations would happen on the road (religion, politics, sex, whatever, no topic was taboo; as I said, our group was close), or sometimes we played card games at the tables. The most popular one became Presidents and Assholes, which up to 6 people could play, and we all developed our own strategies.
The challenge with playing cards was that the truck is not air conditioned, it has windows all along the sides, some of which would be open for air flow and wind to cool us down. Having all those large windows which could be opened was great when we went on game drives in the truck. You could see out the windows clearly, take pictures, feel close to the animals. But when playing cards, holding them down or retrieving the ones that flew away was common practice. We also had to make sure when rains came through that all of the windows were closed to avoid our seats and our stuff getting wet.

Our drives were punctuated by Patrick saying, "Jambo jambo," a Swahili greeting, to start the day, to announce a stop, or to wake us up so we could see something outside (sometimes wildlife, sometimes scenery). We would reply, "sawa sawa," meaning ok or fine. Some of the other phrases we came to know and love were "why not?," "no worries," and "African time," referring to how things run, no schedule is exact (much like tiki time in Costa Rica). We had a schedule, meals had set times, we hoped to get to our destinations by certain times, but really, it was all pretty relaxed, and our group became efficient at getting onto the road, so that we always ran early.

Driving between countries, we had a few border crossings, markedly different on the road than on an airplane. Everyone had to get off the truck with their passports, fill out a customs form, line up to get inspected and stamped, and then wait for the truck to clear through as well. This could go pretty quickly, or it could be drawn out with extra hurdles. Our first crossing, from South Africa to Namibia, was the latter kind. Going out of South Africa, after customs, they individually took us aside and searched through our daypacks and purses. Afterwards, someone came on board the truck to re-check our passports. Then on the Namibian side, we went through customs very slowly, they asked us some questions, took pictures of all of us, and got fingerprints from one of our New Zealanders.

Crossing between Namibia and Botswana was much easier, which is good since we did it a couple of times, winding through our route. We just had to take our shoes and dip them in sanitizer on the Botswana side, for fear of spreading foot and mouth disease.
From Botswana to Zimbabwe, exiting was easy, but entering Zimbabwe, the customs agent was having fun flirting with all of the girls, since their customs form asks for marital status. He was trying to make plans with us to meet up at a bar that night in Victoria Falls. We specifically did not go to the bar he mentioned, just in case.

Each night at dinner, Patrick would lead off with "Something about tomorrow" and give us the run down on what to expect from the next day. We would find out what time breakfast was and what time we would be leaving, so that we could figure out when to set our alarms to wake up, get ready, and take down our tents. But after the first morning, I don't think we ever used our alarm, we just woke up to other people's zippers, pots and pans clanking, and usually the light of the sunrise. Never before in my life (in memory) have I woken up naturally at sunrise each morning, but somehow out there, it wasn't difficult.

Each morning, Wilson, our cook, would prepare some hot food in addition to there being cereal available and hot water for coffee or tea. Black tea with milk and sugar became a staple of my morning. Usually there were eggs of some kind and toast, sometimes bacon or sausage, and couple of very special days, crepes (yum!). After eating, we all washed our own dishes in a few tubs (soapy water, rinse water, hot second rinse water), and then flapped them dry (waving our dishes in the air to dry them faster). Sometimes we made flapping exercise time and would do squats or lunges while we flapped. Sometimes we would get a little too exuberant and a utensil or cup might go flying into the dirt, and have to go back to the first tub.

When lunch was a roadside stop, one group would help out the cook, chopping some vegetables or otherwise helping with set up. We would put out our camp chairs, eat quickly, wash up, and get back on the road. This process was surprisingly efficient.
Dinner was usually at 7 or 7:30pm. It's really impressive how many meals were included in this tour. Other tours I've gone on, you get most breakfasts, and then just a few lunches and dinners included, but on this trip, it was almost every day's meals. There were just a few days when we were staying in bigger towns when we had to fend for ourselves, and then it was nice to get out and see what was locally available (although in Swakopmund, Namibia, it was mostly German or seafood, not what you would expect). Dinners around the truck would begin when we quieted so our cook could introduce the soup of the evening, always delicious. After that, he would tell us about our main course, including something separate for the 2 vegetarians with us. The crew were very conscientious about making sure everyone's food restrictions and preferences were met, and took it personally when we didn't finish our meals (but there was always so much food!). Dinner was almost always accompanied by sharing around the bottles of wine we'd bought. While we ate, we would hear Something About Tomorrow, and then we would wash up and flap our dishes. If the campsite had a bar, we would usually head there for a little while after dinner, but most nights ended pretty early, in anticipation of an early morning.

When I signed up for a 3 week tour of mainly camping, it was with some trepidation. I think a lot of our group was unsure of what to expect. I've camped before, for a long weekend here and there in organized camp grounds with bathroom facilities, but 3 weeks on the road with some stops having "basic facilities" was a bit daunting. I considered paying extra for a single supplement, but decided since we might be camping places with wild animals roaming around, I'd feel more comfortable having someone sleeping next to me. This was the right decisions, I had such a great tent-mate.

Most of the time when we heard loud noises at night, it was someone snoring in another tent. But one night in the Okavango Delta, we were woken up around 2am by something crashing through the woods near our tent, and then, illuminated by the full moon, right outside our tent there was a huge elephant. He stopped for a minute, maybe finding his path between tents, and was silhouetted against our tent, big tusks, massive legs, long trunk, it was incredible. I didn't go rustling through my bag for my camera, this was a moment that my tent-mate and I shared and is imprinted only in our memories.

The biggest mistake I made going into the trip was thinking I knew what to expect weather-wise from summer in southern Africa, and instead of bringing a real sleeping bag, just getting a bag liner, a lightweight very thin bag for warm weather. There were a couple of nights near the north end of our trip (closer to the equator) where this was about sufficient, but there were many nights when I was freezing. The first night of camping, at a winery in the Western Cape, I was violently shivering and blindly searching through my backpack in the dark for any other layers, trying not to wake my tent-mate. All I could find was my quick-dry towel, which I pulled on as a blanket. The next day when we stopped in the town of Springbok, I went to a Pep, the prevalent discount everything store around southern Africa, and bought a fleece blanket. On the other hand, my Therm-a-Rest travel pillow was fantastic, totally comfortable, a great investment. The tour provided us with foam mattresses, and because we had a fairly small group, sometimes we could take 2 of them for extra cushion.

By a week into the trip, we were all experts at erecting and deconstructing our tents, Everyone would help each other out, it was a group effort. But we also had some nights where it was safe to sleep outside of our tents, under the stars. Early on, we had a new moon, and several nights around it were so dark that millions and millions of stars shone out. This doesn't begin to show what we saw, but there's Orion and some others.

Sleeping to the sounds of crickets (and some snoring) with the vast universe shining out above was incredible. Also in some places incredibly cold, but worth it.
One of these places was a "bush camp" where we were miles and miles away from the nearest habitation or other human. We stayed in a rock alcove at the base of a huge stone formation.

When you climbed to the top of the rock, you could look in all directions and see just open space. It was such a drastic and wonderful change from living in New York City, barely able to turn in a circle without hitting someone else. The caveat was that there were no facilities of any kind, so bush toilets for everyone for that night, and brushing teeth using a water bottle. What I had been nervous about in reality was no big deal. The girls went as a group with our head lamps on to another alcove, all turned out our lights and did our business, then put our lights back on and returned to camp.

Most of the campsites were really nice, with decent bathroom facilities including showers, often a pool, and usually a bar (which we felt it was our duty to support the local economies by patronizing). Sometimes trucks and buses with other tour groups would be at the camp at the same time, but other times it would be just us. There might be WiFi or there might not, but usually we didn't care, because we were having such a good time with our group, that we didn't need to be sucked into our devices focused on the outside world. More than once, we had an impromptu sing-along and dance party at either the campsite or local bar, no one worried about what they looked like or how they sounded, just letting loose and enjoying where we were.

This trip was an absolutely incredible experience for me, and the people I met really made it unbeatable. I have a lot more to say about it, and my next installment will be about the animals we saw. Thanks for reading!