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Ust-Kaminogorsk
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Trigance
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Musafaghar
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Delhi

Swimming with Baboons, or Can You Still See Elephants in Africa?

elephantsTo find out the answer, you’ll have to read on.

LOGISTICS

It’s always good to start with something boring, then come back with the more interesting stuff. Short summary: Southern Africa is a very long way away from San Diego. Map research will validate this, if you don’t believe me.

One and a half hours from San Diego to San Francisco. Four hours on the ground in San Francisco. Fourteen and a half hours on the Emirates flight in the air from SFO to Dubai. Five hours on the ground in Dubai. Seven hours on the Emirates flight in the air from Dubai to Johannesburg. Total elapsed time: 32 hours. This seeing animal stuff better damn well be worth it.

Interesting notes: the Emirates airplane had a fancy screen in the back of each seat, which trumpeted that the entertainment system was now offering 2500 channels of entertainment—movies, TV shows, music, news, cartoons, documentaries, video games, back rubs, you name it. Because I can’t help myself, I calculated that I could spend 20.4 seconds on each channel and get through all of them during the longest flight segment. I did spend 20.4 seconds on the new “hot” movie, La La Land, and that was enough.

The airplane drinks menu offered a new breakthrough in alcoholic creativity: the Breakfast Martini. I quote: “Gin shaken over ice with Marmalade, Cointreau and orange.” The editor sitting on my right shoulder points out that this probably should have read “Gin, Marmalade, Cointreau and orange juice shaken with ice, poured into a chilled martini glass” or something like that. I was tempted but since I don’t like martinis of any description, and probably especially not for breakfast, and even more probably not made by flight attendants who are from Abu Dhabi, not a martini sort of town, I deferred.

Unexplainable mysteries: Zambia has lots of copper as well as wildlife. But no secondary manufacturing capability, so all the refined ore has to go to South Africa, the powerhouse economically of the region. It is smelted into ingots, large, thick rectangular pieces of metal as big as four phone books laid in a square, and goes on big modern semi-trucks. There is a decent road from Zambia to Johannesburg. There is one major river to cross. Yes, the Zambezi. I am pretty sure the river has been there for some time. The river at this point is wide and placid. There is no bridge. If I had a company of Army engineers we could bridge it in a day.

There are four “ferries” which are really barges with outboard motors for power, and they can take one truck at a time across the river. Several of the ferries seem to be broken, always. Trucks have to wait as long as a week to cross the river. What? Is it a surprise that there’s a river here? We tourists cross on a “private ferry” which turns out to be a glorified metal motor boat. No white table cloths. We are told that there is also a railroad but it doesn’t work.

POLITICS

We spent a useless day in Johannesburg visiting the Apartheid Museum —South Africa’s answer to the Hanoi Hilton Museum in Hanoi and the Bay of Pigs Museum in Cuba, all with the sub-theme of “see how much we have suffered, you bad Western people.” The museum was quite high on Nelson Mandela, deservedly so, and not so much else. Not much on Jacob Zuma, the current president, thought to be corrupt and autocratic. We then drove around Soweto to see Mandela’s house and another museum commemorating the massacre of some school kids who were protesting one of the many foolish Apartheid mandates—this one from 1976 when the government decreed that all black students be taught in Afrikaans, not English. But we couldn’t go in the museum, a large two story institutional looking brick building, because the roof had collapsed. So we stood around outside and had a local Soweto person who had been there describe how awful it was. Then we drove around Soweto some more and had our guide point out Desmond Tutu’s house, only he doesn’t live there now.

The 1994 elections were a turning point, the first in the country with universal suffrage, held after the deal Mandela and De Klerk made to end apartheid, convert to a liberal democracy and let everyone vote. But according to one of the plaques in the museum, there were 25,000 people killed in various election related disturbances. This was more than the total estimated number of people killed during the entire apartheid period. No one, black or white, made us feel like this was a country where they felt comfortable and safe.

Other miscellaneous factoids: Since the 1948 official beginning of Apartheid to now, there has been much out-migration of the white citizens, many of whom had not only SA but also Dutch or UK passports. And when you look at the 70 years of turmoil and violence since that date, it’s a wonder that anyone is left in the country. Not that it’s been much of a picnic since independence, either.

One other note while we’re on the subject of guilt: The US policy toward apartheid was strongly unsupportive and became tougher as time passed, to include a serious, enforced embargo on SA products. We were probably the most focused of all the countries exerting this political pressure. Although I cannot prove this, there were never any main line US politicians who tried to explain away SA’s racist policies, or excuse them. Good for us.

So much for history and politics and guilt, on to the waterfalls and rhinos.

WILDLIFE

Which is, after all, why we’re here, we aren’t going to try and lead the charge against President Jacob Zuma, corrupt fellow that he may be. That’s now the job of the voters of South Africa.

If you decide that you want to see the Grand Canyon, then you fly to Las Vegas, rent a car, drive to the Grand Canyon, look over the edge, and there it is. If you want to see the Rose Windows in Notre Dame, you fly to Paris, go to Notre Dame, go inside, look up, and there they are. But seeing wildlife is more akin to fishing. You need to go to where the wildlife is likely to be, and having a good guide is useful, but there are no guarantees. Well, perhaps impalas can be guaranteed. The animal not the Chevrolet.

Driving around the park in Zimbabwe, our first stop, we saw impala, kudu, sable, warthogs, Cape buffalo, Zebra, and finally a mother and baby black rhino. We allegedly see where three lions are lying in wait to attack some impala, but we can’t really see them in the grass. Lions are sneaky that way. We also see lots of birds, none of which are found in San Diego.

That first evening we drive from the lodge to a point on the Zambezi river above the falls for a “sunset dinner cruise.” I am apprehensive, as my experience with dinner cruises has been mixed to bad. My favorite was the bateau mouche in Paris, which all tourists are obligated to take. But no one tells you that the food is at best mediocre (in Paris, dammit!) and the Seine has been channelized between high stone banks so what you see as you cruise is, umm, high walls. With commentary that says, “we are now passing the legendary cathedral of Notre Dame” and you cannot see anything but stone.

But this cruise was wonderful. Virtually as soon as we get on I spot four hippos in the distance, we cruise over to them and it’s more like eight, all floating hippo-like in the river, snorting and blowing and wiggling their ears just like on the Jungle Boat ride in Disneyland. We cruise around some more, enjoying the scenery and not going over the falls by mistake, then come to one of the islands in the middle of the channel where a couple of elephants are calmly eating the vegetation and trampling on whatever they haven’t eaten. We putter around further and find a crocodile looking at us with beady crocodile eyes from a submerged location by the bank. Then we all sit down, watch a really glorious sunset, and are served a terrific dinner of roasted bream. On the drive back to the camp we are stopped by three elephants in the middle of the road. Three elephants, side by side as these are, actually should be described as being in all of the road. They finally decide to crunch off into the bush so we can proceed. We do not flash our lights at them, we do not toot our horn, we do not stick our arms out of the window and make rude gestures at them. For they are big and we are small, even if we are in a twenty-five person van.

We’re sitting at the pool of the hotel after another game drive. I am reading a James Patterson thriller because I am an intellectual and L is swimming, even though the water is a touch cold. But it’s warm and the sun is shining and I am thinking about having a local Mosi beer.

The resort is situated along the crest of a small ridge line and is laid out in a linear fashion, fourteen generous suites, and a central lodge/bar/library/dining area and patio. About half way down the hill is a brick wall with a four-strand, serious electric fence on top of it, to discourage the elephants from coming any closer. And the lions and anyone else who could cause trouble by wandering into the manicured part of the property where us tourists stay. We’re sitting here because we only do game drives at 0530 in the morning, and just before dusk. Everyone knows that this is the only time you can see animals. One of the more diligent of our group is by the edge of the human’s part of the resort, looking out over the fence at where the animals would be if only it was the right time. There is a small river resembling a bunch of watering holes at the bottom of the small valley, and it’s all grassy from our brick barrier to about half way up the ridge across the water. “Hey,” she calls, “the buffalo have come down to graze by the water.” Sure enough there are eight Cape Buffalo slowly emerging from the tree line across the valley and meandering down to the patches of water, eating the grass as they go. Then ten, then fifteen and eventually a whole herd of twenty coal black, large, bad tempered Cape Buffalo are right there, very much like a normal herd of cattle. Which they are not. And clearly they cannot tell time. Not even L has the urge to pet them.

In Chobe/Botswana, we went on three game drives, two in the morning and one in the afternoon, and three “river cruises,” in small metal boats that comfortably held 25 to 30 people—not zodiacs, thank God—and puttered along the river so we could stop and see whatever there was to see. Here’s a summary.

What we did not see here that we saw in Zimbabwe:

White rhinos, Sable

What we saw here that we did not see in Zimbabwe:

Lions, Giraffe, Hyena, a family of mongoose

What we saw in South Africa two years ago that we did not see here:

Leopards

What we saw in both places (Zimbabwe and Botswana):

Lots of elephants – Botswana is said to have the most elephants of any country in the world, about 150,000, which does seem a lot. Sri Lanka boasts of its wild elephants and has about 5000.

Lots and lots of impalas – a beautiful little antelope and obviously very fecund. We came across small herds about every fifteen minutes. Also, known in the game drive business as the McDonalds of the forest, as they supply food to all the large predators. When the world catastrophe comes and all the humans are wiped out, the impala will inherit.

Warthogs, a goodly number. Including some hanging around the immigration shack between Zimbabwe and Botswana. Perhaps they couldn’t get a visa.

Cape Buffalo, large numbers.

Hippo, mostly on the three river cruises. Well, of course, it lives in the river.

Kudu, a large antelope—mostly solitary and few.

Baboons, lots, in packs and also trying to get into the resorts. Unpleasant fellows really.

Crocodiles, mostly on the river cruises, single members including one hanging out at the Chobe hotel just below the swimming pool. This gave us pause. But it wasn’t a heated pool anyway so we weren’t swimming in it anyway.

We spent more time than one would have thought on birds. We had as part of our group a serious but pleasant woman of the birding persuasion. We fell under her evil spell and spent at least half of each ‘game drive’ peering up at dead trees or down at the ground or out at the nearby bushes trying to identify indistinct medium size brown bird-like things before they flew away, which they did routinely eighty-five percent of the time. But the remaining fifteen percent was pretty rewarding. We saw in no particular order:

Red headed partridge – it does in fact have a bright red head. So there. Not easy to find on line or in bird books.

Yellow sparrow weaver—one of the trees at the lodge in Zimbabwe had probably thirty individual nests hanging all over it, made by these birds. Industrious. Don’t stand under the tree, however.

White backed vulture—lots of these in Zimbabwe, slightly but only slightly better looking than the US turkey vulture. This is not a high standard for attractiveness.

Cattle egret—many, hanging around the Cape buffaloes. Nice looking white member of the heron family.

Ox peckers—these live on the bugs found on larger animals, and so sit on their backs and eat ticks, etc. Mostly we saw these on antelopes and Cape Buffalo. Hard way to make a living.

Wattled lapwings, magpie lapwings, blacksmith lapwings (all formerly “plovers”—apparently, there is as much revisionism in bird taxonomy as there is in horticulture)—great looking medium size black and white bird, easy to identify by its distinctive marking. Also, not concerned to find itself by the side of the road with vehicles grinding by. We like self-confidence in a bird.

Fish eagle—looks a lot like the American eagle, lustrous white head, large black/brown body, and the pleasant habit of perching at the top of dead trees so you can see it. Apparently the fish cannot. National bird of Zambia.

Lilac breasted roller—dramatically colored bird with nothing but bright colors making up for its relatively small size.

Kori bustard—largest flying bird in the inventory, but not a predator. Anything bigger than a Canadian goose, and this is, is impressive in flight. National bird of Botswana.

Glossy starling—if a crow were smaller, quieter, had shiny feathers to include a shiny dark blue, almost iridescent head and a bright yellow eye, it would be this interesting bird.

Somber Bulbul—seen eating a moth, tediously, while sitting on an outdoor lighting fixture at the camp in Zimbabwe. This would make anyone somber.

Hornbills—several kinds, easy to identify due to long tail and curved bill. Like a junior varsity toucan.

Bee eaters—another family of small but flashy birds who do eat bees, God knows why. Maybe they got to the food line late and this was all that was left.

Pied wagtail—in fact did walk around wagging his tail. Strange.

Red backed shrike—with orangish back, not really red. But who would want to be called “orangish not quite red backed shrike?”

Tawny eagle—smaller than fish eagle but no less impressive.

Drongo—your basic blackbird, broad range, forked tail, cool name.

Pearl winged goose, Egyptian goose—hard for me to get past the “goose” part on these.

Waxbills—very small bird but colored baby blue. Quite nice. Hard to see. These last two characterizations seem to go together.

Guinea fowl—ground dweller with odd black feathers spotted with white, and brilliant blue head too small for its body.

Long-tailed paradise whydah—fabulous looking bird, with style and presence—basically black with a brilliant red bib and yellow breast. And a very, very long tail, maybe two feet long. Also an odd flight pattern, it makes “J” shapes in the sky.

By this time we get to Zambia, our last destination, we have broken down into the people more interested in birds and the people more interested in cats, e.g. lions and leopards. But we haven’t seen a leopard on the whole trip, and only two lions once. Everyone is really eager for a leopard, except me and the most committed bird person. Large predators make me nervous. On the second morning there, we divide into two trucks and the “bird nerds” go in one and the Cat People go in the other.

Because the universe is not always fair, we bird fanciers come upon a leopard within fifteen minutes of getting into the park, follow it, get pictures of it, and so forth. We are decent human beings so we send a radio message to the other truck saying where we are. They hurry over, by which time the leopard has disappeared into the bush, we go on watching birds, and the Cat People spend five bouncy and frustrating hours with no cat siting. Ah, life.

INTERESTING GEOGRAPHIC FEATURES

I confess to not really being a big fan of geography, or of dramatic bits of geography like waterfalls. They’re fine, I suppose, but once you’ve looked at one for a while (for me, fifteen minutes) then I am ready for something else—a cheeseburger, a bus ride to the souvenir shop, a cool drink, whatever is next on the program. I suppose I simply find human accomplishment more interesting. Although whether a cheeseburger is the apogee of man’s endeavor is more arguable. Depends on the cheeseburger. But Victoria Falls was on the program, so go there we did.

To get to Victoria Falls should one be so inclined, it’s useful to know that it’s in the middle of the southern part of Africa, and the Zambezi river, which nourishes it, is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It might be the only place in the world with this confluence of the letter Z. We are staying on the Zimbabwe side, but have to land at Livingstone, where the airport is, in Zambia. We get to stand in line a long time while individual visas are filled out and $80 US is collected, then we drive over the famous Vic Falls iron bridge built 110 years ago. The legendary and now much reviled Cecil Rhodes was its sponsor although he died before he ever got to cross it. So much for fame.

The bridge, fortunately, does not fall down as we pass over it, but only one truck at a time is allowed across the one-way, one lane structure. And trucks there are, mostly loaded with ingots of copper, headed from the mines in Zambia to the factories in South Africa. This is a longer route, but at least there’s a damn bridge.

We get off the bus on the Zimbabwe side and walk along a trail along the edge of the falls. One cannot really see much because all this crashing water makes huge clouds of mist, which obscure the falls. You can hear them. You can get wet from the mist while you’re walking along the trail, trying to peer through the mist and see one of the wonders of the world. You can take pictures of your friends standing in front of the large cloud of mist. You can wear a poncho and keep dry from the mist but get wet instead from sweating inside the poncho. No end of interesting activities awaits you.

OK, check, did that. The other interesting feature is the Zambezi River itself. Although since it falls down into a gorge right there, you cannot see it either through the mist. But later we are told that the Zambezi is the fourth largest river in Africa, after the Nile, the Congo, and the Niger. I studied African politics some time ago, and I don’t recall the Niger even being a river. But it apparently is, and runs thorough West Africa and (hey, this is cool) through the country of Niger, not to be confused with the country of Nigeria, which is next to it on the south. Little else is known of Niger, at least by me, or of the river. According to the website “Ask me something stupid.com,” when you ask “Is Niger a country?” the answer is “yes.” The answer should of course be “yes and also a river.” But we digress.

We spend a lot of time on the Zambezi, at each of our three lodge sites. It is always time well spent, as the Zambesi is shallow, dammed only once much lower down at the Kabila damn, and not dredged or channeled or anything like that. It is full of wildlife, most hippos and crocodiles who seem to get along. The Zambesi that we experience is shallow, slow moving and clogged with many islands. All the better for the hippos and crocs. We do not see, in ten days, a single “commercial” boat hauling stuff up or down river.

LODGING AND LODGES

We are not boy scouts, or Army rangers, or hippies travelling in a van with sleeping bags. We are mostly over fifty Cornell graduates. If we ever knew how to pitch a tent, we have forgotten. We do not cook over campfires. We stay in lodges which have walls (mostly), roofs (uniformly), screens on the windows, hot water, buffet dinners, and intermittent internet. These places are sometimes called lodges and sometimes called camps, but it’s the same.

The purpose of the lodges is first, food and shelter, and second, they are close to or even in a game preserve or park. And they all provide trucks and guides so you can go on these game drives in said preserve/park.

Our first lodge, the Livingstone and Stanley Hotel, is in Zimbabwe about ten kilometers from the falls, down a dirt road, and situated on its own 15,000-acre game preserve. We get up at five thirty and are in the open Land Rovers by six thirty, roaring off into the preserve. It’s very green and thick as there has been a lot of rain here, but there are also many open stretches and a nice little fordable river running down the middle of the park. We drive around for three hours and yes, there are animals.

This pattern is repeated with a water variant at the other two lodges: the Chobe River Marina, and the Royal Zambezi lodge. Good, that’s why we’re here.

On to Botswana, by bus, a two-hour trip to the Chobe Marina Lodge, a big riverside property of mixed style: “old colonial” with “faux African village” with Travelodge. Big suites with small furniture, mosquito nets, spotty internet, a “Riverside” bar overlooking, yes, the river side. And the Chobe river, which is a tributary of the Zambezi. Native touristic dancers are performing in the bar whether you want them to or not. I asked if they knew “Down by the Riverside” and offered to hum a few bars, but this offer was not accepted. The focus here as in Zimbabwe is game drives, in this case in the Chobe National Park, a 20,000 acre preserve very nearby, with lots of game animals and no fences so the animals can come and go. And the tourists. It was previously a teak plantation, but one year after Botswana’s independence from the UK, the president, Seretse Khama, had the presence of mind to buy the land up. Diamonds are Botswana’s largest export but the country’s leaders have figured out that diamonds are not in fact forever, and when they’re gone they’ll need something else to keep everyone busy and employed. And that else is game tourism.

They have also figured out that having poachers shoot out all the rhino and elephants will put a serious dent in their tourism future. So they have passed a “Shoot to kill” law on poachers and stationed army troops in the park. Since the poachers were shooting the anti-poaching police, the new law seemed reasonable and even handed. We will set aside here discussions of notice, probable cause, willful blindness, and due process. The law and the trigger-happy soldiers have pretty much stopped poaching in the park, which is a good thing. We actually ran into a small cadre of soldiers, in olive drab, carrying backpacks and bedrolls and AK-47’s. Bit scary.

Our final lodge was the Royal Zambezi on the far east side of Zambia. The lodge is on the Zambezi River, which everyone has now told us roughly seventy-four times, is the fourth longest river in Africa. See Geographical Features, above. It is also at this point the border with Zimbabwe where lives R. Mugabe, President for Life and who has unfortunately lived 94 years and basically ruined his country. This is an interesting example which can be used to prove the following rule of political science: Good political leadership does not guarantee a successful country, but bad leadership guarantees an unsuccessful one. See also Venezuela for further proof.

The lodge is right along the river, beside the Lower Zambezi National Park of just over a million acres and really poor dirt roads. This is pretty big; the largest national park in the lower 48 is Death Valley at 3.3 million acres. The lodge has tents with roofs and wooden floors, each one separate cabana, and the area is not fenced. Hence the animals can come right through the compound to get to the river. And they do. Also, the hippos come up on the shore to feed every night around two, and they make coughing, grunting, chomping noises. We are told that elephants sometimes come through, and lions. You are encouraged to stay in your cabana after dinner. Hey, no problem. After dark, you are also encouraged to have one of the staff, armed disconcertingly with only a large, bright flashlight, come and escort you to or from the lodge. We didn’t need a lot of encouragement.

Fortunately, the food is really good, the staff is responsive and the guides are terrific. And the park is full of, well, wild life. Up until 1983 it was the private game preserve of the president. It is enormous, as noted above. It is very hard to get to, no paved roads in or out, a trackless mountain range along the western border, the Zambezi on the eastern border. We take a private charter flight in and out. There are few other lodges around so we have the park to ourselves. How they keep the lodge running when they are near nothing and there are no roads anywhere and guests arrive on a charter plane at the small landing strip a quarter mile away, is beyond me. How do they get fuel? How do they get mail? How do they get fresh lettuce? How to they get beer and South African wines? How do they watch President Trump say something stupid? This is a hard business, it seems to me.

The third night we are there, a grazing and very noisy hippo comes out of the river and grazes noisily right beside our cabana/tent. Hippos weigh from one to two tons and just trample things in their way. L lies there worrying and hoping that he or she won’t decide to come through the tent wall/screen in a quest for more grass. I am sure that this was disquieting, but I don’t really know since I slept through the adventure.

We had baboons using our small outdoor swimming pool during the day, which we did not discourage since there were four or five of them. They ran off with the towels.

MISCELLANEOUS CULTURAL EXPERIENCES

Or “Dumb things we did because it was on the schedule.”

On our second morning in Zimbabwe, we make a scheduled visit to a primary school. We don’t know why. Yes, the kids are cute, shy and yet curious and energetic. I do not believe they are considered “wildlife.” Yes, the school is not in great physical shape, but somehow, they have a computer room with forty modern desktop computers. And the room where we are briefed has six light fixtures and two light bulbs. And yes, it’s hard to get a good education in Zimbabwe as the country is broke and exceptionally poorly served by its political leadership. We have been directed in our trip material that we should bring school items to leave, so our group gives the administrator Costco pencils and copy books and an edition of Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss, printed on renewable paper. We were impressed that the kids speak better English than some U.S. school kids we have seen, and the country does seem to be committed to education.

While we’re on the subject, let’s stipulate that all third world schools are difficult, facilities are not first rate, teachers are not particularly well qualified and certainly not well paid, there are not enough books, and computer access and training is limited. And the kids are bright and eager and full of energy. We’re sorry about this situation, although you could apply this description to more schools in the US than one would like. However, one visit to an African school by a bunch of middle aged mostly white people bearing inexpensive gifts is not going to change this.

We had not one, not two, but five instances of native touristic dancing pressed upon us—once at the school, once at the goodbye dinner in Zimbabwe, once on getting into the boat on the Zambezi, once in getting off said boat three hours later, by the same group, and once at the Riverside bar in Botswana. Number three and four should perhaps be counted as one instance, since it was the same dancers who had just taken a three-hour intermission. It was all the same stuff: costumes that looked like they came from the original King Kong movie, drumming and much chanting that sounded suspiciously like the Kingston Trio playing “The lion sleeps tonight” on acid. Low quality acid. If you have ever seen real documentary footage of dancers in tribal villages, there is not so much chanting, there is not so much skin, and there is certainly not so much jumping about. Perhaps globalization will finally reduce all such performances to the same thing. I believe based on my extensive and generally unwilling observation of many cases of touristic dancing that there is already progress in this direction.

THE ROMANCE OF AFRICA

Since this is the tropics or at least one of the warm humid parts of the world, we are concerned about mosquitoes since they carry malaria, dengue fever, Chikungunya and perhaps the gene for obesity. Hence we are implored/directed by our tour director to wear insect repellent with a high percentage, i.e. 100%, of DEET, which is diethyltoluamide. It is effective but carries an unattractive odor and is kind of greasy. Its sustained use is also associated with seizures, insomnia, impaired cognitive function and mood disturbance. I suppose this is part of its effectiveness. From time to time we put it on unexposed parts of the body like neck and ears and hands before going out on a game drive or river cruise. We came back from one of these, went up to our room, and L, being the lovely person that she is, proceeded to kiss me on the back of the neck. “Ugh, crap, deet!” she said, making a spitting noise and an unattractive face. “I guess I’ll have to go back to Old Spice,” I replied. It appears they were right about the mood disturbance side effect.

GREAT TOURIST MOMENTS

We for some reason were all discussing our malaria medicine, Malarone, which almost all of us are taking as malaria is a not good thing to have. One of our tour companions said, “Oh, I don’t take it, I don’t want to become addicted.” Pause, while the rest of us politely tried to figure out how one would become malaria preventive dependent, even if one did live in Manhattan. “Instead I take Aleve PM,” she added. Not much of a substitute but to each his own choice of medications. The guide offers: “Oh, well, malaria is treatable.”

More: outside the modern clinic on the main street in Chobe is a small poster which promises to use traditional medicine to cure STD’s, unwanted pregnancy, impotence, financial problems, and witchcraft. The URL for the proponent’s web site and his or her What’s App number are then added as contact information. Marketing is so important, especially for witchcraft.

Things our guides told us, but may not be true, #1: Johannesburg as a city has more trees per acre than any other city in the world. However, none of these trees is native to South Africa. Fact Check: Sacramento CA appears to have the most trees per capita, but Johannesberg may have the most trees by absolute number. No way to check on the non-endemic claim. Toronto has a lot of trees as well, in case you were wondering.

Can this be true, #2: Crocodiles live to be 120 years old. Fact Check: nope, sixty to seventy years old.

Can this be true, #3: Hippos live in the water because they’re subject about sunburn. Fact Check: No, they secrete a red oily substance that protects their skin from sunburn. Whales, however, can get sunburned, not that you asked.

BEST MOMENTS IN EACH PARK, excluding the birds because that’s an acquired taste:

We took the Victoria Falls helicopter flight. It was expensive and short, but a dramatic way to see and marvel at this amazing natural wonder. Plus, you could actually see something not masked by all the mist.

Zimbabwe—a mom and baby rhino emerging from the bush and crossing the road at a leisurely pace behind our stopped truck, but quite close—maybe ten feet. No rhinos in Zambia or Botswana.

Chobe—river cruise with twenty-three elephants emerging from the bush and coming down to the water to drink and bathe and screw around; two female lions lying in the sand, raising their heads simultaneously and looking around disdainfully at the eleven game drive trucks surveying them, from a respectful distance of course; then at the end of the day game drive, when we are almost to the park gate, eight giraffes come out of nowhere and graze very close to the road.

Zambezi—we come across a herd of fifty-five cape buffalo who all initially ignore us, then stare at us unhappily, then stampede away. Thank goodness.

A RARE MOMENT OF GOOD JUDGEMENT

On a canoe outing on a tributary of the Zambezi on one of the last days of the trip, several of our trip members had come across a dead hippo caught in a snag. They encouraged us to take the canoe trip the next day and see what had happened to it. We demurred, but several others did not. They got close to the hippo but it was being eaten by eleven crocodiles. They decided to portage their canoes around it and continue their trip up the tributary. Goodness. I am not getting out of my canoe in the presence (“presence” defined as close enough to see them) of eleven crocs in high feast day mode. I am turning around and going back to look for more birds.

Instead of the canoe, we selected an afternoon boat cruise on the lower Zambezi. Most all of the others wanted to go off for more kidney-jarring hours of bouncing through the park in search of the elusive leopard, and maybe some lions as well. We decided that we’d seen the leopard. For two and half hours we cruised slowly down river in an aluminum boat with an outboard, a guide and a helmsman, for maybe three miles. We saw an elephant at the river bank and were able to get to within fifteen feet of him. Head on. And he was even in must. We saw a beautiful fish eagle on a tree beside the river and a really lovely malachite kingfisher, small and a jewel-like blue. We came right up to the edge of an island where herons had nested, three or four types. We probably disturbed fifty birds by this, who all went flapping away in various frames of mind. And we saw, honest to goodness, thirty-five hippos, all in the river, in groups of three or four.

We managed not to hit any, which was good given that the crocs were waiting for just such an opportunity. If you live to be 120, you probably get good at waiting.

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