December 18, 2005 – December 27, 2005
9 day/night Safari in Botswana, Africa
Days 1 & 2 = Okavango Delta
Days 3 & 4 = Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve
Days 5 & 6 = Savute Marsh, Chobe National Park
Days 7 & 8 = Chobe River, Chobe National Park
Day 9 = Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – Andre Gide
This quotation is a good segue way into the safari. When we booked the trip what we THOUGHT we were consenting to and what we IN FACT actually got weren’t even in the same game park!
Let’s start by saying there was a breakdown in communication. Breakdowns are no fun and even less fun on vacation. But they happen and it happened on our safari. So the story begins...
The breakdown partly came from sheer misrepresentation from the safari company. I assumed the company I used to book the trip, Imagine Africa, would be guiding us through the safari. The phone conversations, website content and email correspondence leading up to the trip didn’t give me any reason to think we’d be traveling throughout Africa with a company other than Imagine Africa. It never occurred to me to ask if this was a possibility. I guess this is one of those lessons one learns through travel experience. Now that I’m a veteran I’ll know to ask for next time. As for the other part of the communication breakdown I take full responsibility. When I researched this particular safari I was reading what I WANTED it to mean and not what it actually said in black in white. HUGE mistake. The words “fixed tented chalet” caught my eye and for some reason I glossed over the word “camping in spacious tents”. (Spacious tents. another misrepresentation) In my mind I guess I wanted “camping” to mean fixed tented chalet. There’s no other explanation I can come up with since I was definitely of the mindset of some luxury not totally roughing it. Had I known there would be camping Josh and I would have talked about our opinions on camping and then we would have signed up for a different safari experience. Like I said. HUGE mistake. Oh, well. Josh forgave me on day one and I forgave myself too so it’s all good.
Here’s how it went down:
We landed at Maun Airport in Botswana and were greeted by Ian the owner of Swamplands Safaris. This is when we first learned Imagine Africa was an imaginary safari company and Swamplands Safari would be our guide. Ian told us the lodge we’d been booked in for the first two nights had closed down. He booked us at Gunn’s Camp, another lodge on the same scale. OK. Fine. Not the best first impression but let’s keep the story going.
With an open mind and adventurous spirit we let the games begin and flew to Gunn’s Camp in one of those 6-seater, single-engine, fear-for-my-life-every-second-I’m-in-the-air planes. After lunch and safari siesta the first activity was a mokoro ride (canoe built out of a tree trunk) and walk through the bush. To help ease my fear of the wild on the walk I put BK, our guide at Gunn’s Camp, in front and Josh behind me just in case we were paid any visits from Mr Buffalo Bill or Lenny the Lion.
Before the walk in the bush BK gave what I call the “scare the shit out of you” talk. First thing he says is “you’re in an extremely dangerous environment”. I know it’s his job to say this but it’s SO obvious it’s comical. Nervous laughter, of course! We were standing in the middle of a vast body of land with nothing to use for cover as far as the eye can see with a strong possibility of lions, leopards, buffalo, hippos, cheetahs and wild dogs roaming nearby. Dangerous. Ya think?! Next BK explains how you shouldn’t wear bright colored clothing like the red baseball cap on Josh’s head or my bright white T-Shirt. He said it’s not good for the animals. (Another nail in Imagine Africa’s coffin) We imagined ourselves looking like two big bloody pieces of meat ready for the taking but then realized BK was saying our colors were too bright and would scare AWAY the animals. Whew! BK offered more sound advice. If we encounter a lion we should stand perfectly still. Apparently they don’t bother with you unless you run like prey. Then they’ll charge! That was easy enough to follow. However, if a buffalo spots you it’s time to hightail it. BK’s advice was to climb a tree or hide behind big bushes. The only problem with that advice is there wasn’t a mere scrub or stump in site. Our timing was lucky and the animals we did see on that first walk were herbivores. BK knew exactly where to find the animals. We walked only 5 minutes and came up on four giraffes. They’re SO cute and big but SO shy! Still feeling self conscious about my clothing and as if I had a bulls eye drawn around the perimeter of my body we walked another few hours before riding back in the mokoro to Gunn’s Camp.
BK’s formal education didn’t go beyond primary school but he knew valuable things you learn from growing up in the bush. His father was a bush doctor and now like his father BK heals people with illnesses. He told me he heals people in the village. “It’s my job”. On the hike he bent down to the ground and started digging at the root of a vine-like plant with silver dollar sized fuchsia flowers (Singhaparile. BK’s spelling). “For my brother. For his kidney”. BK explained first he chops and then boils the root in water. Then the homeopathic herb liquid helps flush the bad kidney. We also learned African sage leaves boiled with water is their remedy for Malaria. We stayed on the Malarone.
After only two days we saw loads of animals and birds. I tried journaling everything I saw but lost track of all the birds. The Malachite Kingfisher turned us instantly into bird watchers for the rest of the safari. We couldn’t take our eyes off its blue, yellow, orange and red feathered head. The different animals we saw after only two days on safari; Impala, Giraffe, Litri, Tsesebe Antelope, Zebra, Warthog, Buffalo, Baboon, Elephant and Hippo.
It was then time to start the next phase of the safari. We flew from Gunn’s Camp over the Okavango Delta back to Maun Airport. Spotting a heard of elephant and other tiny auburn colored dots in the delta beneath us took my mind off the 25-minute plane ride. Once again, our “guide”, Ian, greeted us at the airport and his next bit of news was the real shocker. Ian told us we would be camping for the next six nights in the bush. Another reason I wasn’t a fan of Ian’s was if he properly greeted us the first time with a thorough introduction to the safari itinerary we might have been able to arrange alternate accommodations for the last few days of the safari. Quicker than you can say Zippy the Zebra Ian handed us over to a new team who would be with us at all times over the next three days. Max, our safari guide, Matt, the cook who would be preparing our three meals a day and Oddie, the barefoot laughing wonder boy who helped put everything together and take it apart day after day after day. Let’s back up for a minute, though. When Ian was telling us we would be CAMPING, IN THE BUSH, IN TENTS for the next six days it didn’t sink into my head at first or maybe I was in shock because it wasn’t until later that evening I found myself desperately trying to craft a solution to get us out of the bush and underneath a featherbed in a luxury lodge with a plunge pool, turndown service and chocolates on our pillows. Josh, on the other hand, heard Ian quite clearly. The news of camping for six days came across crystal clear. He camped once in his life on a Cub or Boy Scout trip with his father over 20 years ago. He liked it so much he hasn’t camped since. Immediately the writing was on the wall and Josh knew we were destined to be Bushmen for the next six days and nights so he resigned himself to go with the flow. This is why I loved traveling with Josh.
For anyone reading this blog I feel compelled to shine a spotlight on two different types of experiences offered on safari. I’m a bright girl and to have made this grave error means it could happen to other people. Two ways to experience a safari are 1) a $3,000 camping in the bush safari and 2) an $8,000 civilized lodge dwelling safari. Another way to put it is there are safaris with flushing toilets and those with trenches dug into the ground. What I learned from my safari experience and how to help you determine whether you’re a bushman or lodge dweller at heart is the following. If you REALLY enjoy camping and I don’t mean you like wearing the North Face clothing or shopping at REI or sipping a cup of hot chocolate in the chilled morning air. If you REALLY enjoy being in the great outdoors, eating three meals a day on aluminum plates and drinking instant coffee from aluminum mugs. If you get a thrill out of waking to the sound of a symphony of birds around your head or inhaling and exhaling fresh air. If you’re still having fun after five or six days of sleeping in a tent and taking one to two showers then there’s no question that the $3,000 camping safari is for you.
In my opinion (and I’m sure if you asked Josh he would have a different opinion), no amount of luxury can replace the excitement of sleeping in the bush among wild animals with no safety fencing between you and the hippos and hyenas. At first the excitement is fear-based. You don’t have a clue how to get around, you’re unprotected in the wild and your life is in another person’s hands. Usually when I do something for the first time it’s scary but I know it will only be scary that first time and then I might actually enjoy myself. Living in the bush we were just a minute away from viewing a morning killing that we might have not seen if we stayed in a lodge. We would have had to drive at least 45 minutes to get into the game park and either wake at 5am or miss one of the highpoints of the safari. Don’t get me wrong. By day three I was pining for luxury! In the very beginning I was so terrified the hairs on my arms stood so straight and stiff they could have broken. On the first night I woke Josh up to protect me while I used Mother Nature’s toilet. The following 5 days I was cut off from liquid after 7pm to try and avoid the situation all together. I still had to go and by the second night I adapted to the outdoors and braved the bush in the middle of the night.
Often I caught myself feeling like a little child driving around in a huge car with my feet hanging but not touching the ground with eyes wide open asking question after question. “How long are they pregnant?”, “Which animals do they kill?”, “Who eats them?”, “What kind of bird is that?”, “Where are the lions hiding?”. Our guide Max knew every answer to every question except one. On our last day I asked him for the name of a plant with bright yellow flowers. He said it was a, “yellow-flowered plant”. One question unanswered out of a million answered ones. Not bad!
Max was the best guide we could have had! He LOVES animals and was always eager to go looking for them even after driving six hours through flooded roads. Baboons were his favorite. He loved playing with them. When we came across baboons he would stop the Land Rover turn off the engine and watch them play for the longest time. He led us to animals as if he had prearranged a meeting with them. First he’d check the sand for tracks. Point his finger in a particular direction and say, “this is where the lion is”. Sure enough, he’d drive us to see the lion. Max has the eyes of an eagle, playfulness of a baboon, confidence of a lion and patience of a bushman. Luckily for us, he was our guide.
Every day we took two safari drives. First one was after breakfast around 7am for four or five hours. Then back to the campsite for lunch and a three-hour nap to try and sleep off the heat. The second drive was from 3 to 6. The sunsets were surreal. There’s nothing but sky for miles and miles. By the end of the trip we saw 23 different animals. In addition to what I’ve already listed we saw; velvet monkeys, sable antelope, steenbok (smallest antelope), red eared fox, ostrich (maybe that’s a bird?), jackals, kudu antelope, lions and lioness, crocodile, monitor lizard, pooku antelope, and a pack of wild dogs mauling a baby impala.
There was one food highlight on the trip. We had a very special treat on our last night. Matt cooked us a traditional Botswanan meal of Seswang and Papa. Locals call it Seswang and Pop. It’s like shredded cooked beef with white corn meal polenta. It was really tasty and FUN to eat with our hands! See recipe below.
Even though we didn’t actually sign up to be Bushmen and forego the basic comforts of daily life I’m so happy I had the experience of living in the bush for six days. I might not have met Max the courageous and playful or been a part of Oddie and Matt’s infectious laughter. I’d like to do another safari and complete the BIG FIVE list. Lion, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino and Leopard. Will I camp or plunge? Hopefully both.
Matt’s Recipe for Seswang and Papa
You eat this dish with your hands. First take a bit of pop and mold it into a strip shape like a sushi chef and then dip the pop into your shredded beef so you get the beef to stick onto the pop. Then it goes in your mouth.
These steps were dictated to me by Matt. It hasn’t been tested yet at home so there might need to be some tweaking.
1. Salt shredded beef and cook on very low heat for 3 hours. Add a little vegetable oil. You want the beef to dry out. Don’t stir too much until the beef is dry and then stir.
2. Put water in pot and bring to boil (not sure how much water)
3. In separate bowl, stir together a ¼ litre cold water and 4 tablespoons white corn powder (white maize).
4. Stir cold water and maize mixture into boiling water
5. Let boil for 3 minutes and don’t stir
6. Add more maize for desired texture – should be like polenta
7. Lower head and cover for 4-5 minutes
8. Uncover and stir well.
9. Serve shredded beef on the side of papa. Enjoy.