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An unexpected guest

Camp Kalahari is situated along the Makgadikgadi salt pans. It’s oppressively hot in the afternoons and even though we’ve come during the wet season, its seen no water for some time. In years past, the watering holes had run dry. This had forced the animals to travel further to survive. They’d come upon cattle, anger farmers by snacking, and get shot. Wanting to protect the wildlife, Botswana enacted a strict 6-yr ban on killing any wild animal. Farmers were at a loss, as government compensation for each cow eaten was not enough to cover the cost of a new cow. Man-made watering holes were the semi-successful solution to keeping the animals close.

Our camp has a small swimming pool, understandably mistaken for a watering hole by thirsty passerbys. We were told that animals would often wander in, but the combination of lions, overeager tourists, and the ban on firearms proved to be too much. An electric fence was installed around the camp a few years ago. Only the elephants have been smart enough to realize a little shock won’t actually kill. (In the defense of other animals, elephants are huge and for all we know, may barely feel the deterrent.)

The fence though, does not stop smaller animals from wandering in. On our last night in camp Kalahari, after our guide had safely walked us to our tent and we’d fallen asleep, I woke up to the sounds of an animal trying to get into our tent. Reasonably, I woke Andrew who just as reasonably told me to go back to sleep. He got up to use the bathroom, putting on his headlamp to navigate the zippers between our sleeping tent and the bathroom tent. “Oh, that’s unfortunate,” he says and comes back to me. “It’s actually in the tent.” I’m a bit panicked. “What? Is it a mouse?” “No, it’s a little bit bigger than a mouse.” The tent had been zipped and the hole between the ground and the end of the zipper couldn’t have been more than an inch or two of clearance. “So, like a squirrel?” I ask. “Yeah, maybe, if a squirrel was a little bit bigger.” For the rest of the night we hear this poor thing trying to escape, not sure how it got in, thrashing against the side of the tent.  We’d been given a box containing insect repellent and a bull horn to cry for help, but Andrew assured me it wasn’t necessary, so I instead used the box to barricade the opening to our tent.  I heard his little body slam against that too. Just before dawn, it found it’s way out. At breakfast Andrew described the critter to our guide. “Totally harmless,” he says. “It was a genet cat.” He pulls up a picture he had saved on his phone. Next time, we’re using the bullhorn.

Arriving

You’d think that after a 10-hr flight to London, an 11-hr flight to Johannesburg, and a 2-hr flight to Maun, we’d be feeling the effects of jetlag. And we were, until we saw the plane that would be taking us on our last leg of the journey to Jack’s airstrip. If we hadn’t recognized why there were strict weight limits for our luggage before, we certainly did now. The plane held four people, including the pilot. We were wide awake as we pushed our limbs inside, feeling somewhere between the Wright brothers in an early aircraft and the Kardashians in a private plane. We stayed wide awake for the next hour as we felt every air-pocket and tried to capture the wildlife we saw below. The plane flew low and slow, and landed gracefully in the middle of nowhere on a tiny airstrip with no control tower. Just a man in a Jeep who’d left the camp when he’d heard a plane.

The camp was spectacular. In this vast nothingness we were greeted with cool towels to clean our hands, homemade lemonade, and sandwiches of cucumber and cheese under the shade of thatched roof huts. We were shown the bathroom with no door, where a rope would symbolize if it was occupied, then walked an eighth of a mile to our tent. It was a short distance that felt arduous under the beating African sun. The tent can’t be compared to anything I’d ever seen because I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. We’d already had the greatest adventure, and we’d only just begun.

Story of a game lodge in the Okavango

Several very long flights later, our excitement for the trip only grows. To get ourselves mentally prepared for the adventure to come, we read a comical book by Andrew and Gwynn, a couple who become managers of a game lodge in the Okavango. From hearing their stories of all that goes wrong at the lodge from destructive baboons and hyenas to threatening elephants to never receiving enough shipments of food to disturbing an angry wasp nest and so much more, we’re now prepared to call any mishap just another part of the adventure. One of the wilder things, though, is how much goes on behind the scenes at these lodges for which the guests have no idea. And so we’re also excited that there’s a non-zero chance that we unknowingly participate in some of these “matatas” (meaning problems in Setswana).

In addition to enumerating their matatas, Andrew St Pierre and Gwynn White also share their love for the region in the below quote as part of their larger story in
Torn Trousers: A True Story of Courage and Adventure: How A Couple Sacrificed Everything To Escape to Paradise.

“There was a place so tranquil that angels went there to rest. It was a place of such singular beauty, even the lilies dressed for dinner. Yet the ebb and flow of its life-giving water was determined by a climate a thousand miles away. The water level was high during times of drought and low in times of rain. At its heart ran a river that sought the sea but never found it. Instead, it spilled onto a plateau of sand, spreading like an Eden across the desert until at last it vanished into the dust.

Animals, great and small, followed the river, each in pursuit of happiness. When they found it, they stayed. Fish swam in quiet eddies. There were birds so varied in hue they confused the rainbows. Vast herds of elephant, buffalo, and antelope made homes here, and behind them carnivores trod. Trees offered shelter to snakes and comfort to travelers.

This was where my heart lay, in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.”

Botswana trip prep

Every trip requires preparation, but the level of prep can vary greatly. For our upcoming trip to Botswana, there were many more checkboxes on our pre-trip to-do lists than typical.

One example was that at the top of the packing list, it reads “pack lightly, max 15 kg”. However, kind of like when a parent tells you to do something, it doesn’t really hit home until you hear it from another source. In this case, my second opinion comes from Peter Allison in his book “Whatever you do, don’t run: true tales of a Botswana safari guide”:

Any travel agent stresses to a client that they will be traveling in very small bits of motorized tin, and their luggage weight should reflect that. In fact, it is set at a strict twenty-five pounds. But looking at the camera bags and tripods being wrestled from the cargo area, I could tell that this guy had gone well over that.

Then, in mid-flight, he started taking photos, which was no problem, but when I pointed out some hippos, he leaned over the top of me and shoved me into the controls. Not one of them screamed when we went into a dive. What sort of people are they?

I like to think we’re not those sorts of people. I’m not too worried about interfering with pilots as I’m typically good at following most common sense rules, but the weight restrictions hit home. Just one of my several camera lenses I plan to bring weighs almost 4 lbs, or ~10% of my total limit. And this doesn’t include the monopod, computer, external HD, and other camera necessities. Uh oh. But luckily, I learn one of the perks of marriage: when Lindsey asks how much luggage we can bring, without hesitating, I turn and tell her 12 kg. I find myself an extra 3kg!

Allison, however, didn’t only scare me about how to prep, he also excited me about the things we might get to witness while there. And although most of his book detailed hilarious stories of tourists rather than inspiring tales of animals, this one stuck with me:

A great trumpet came from the elephants, as if in celebration, echoed by us on the vehicle, many of whom were in tears (and that unashamedly includes me). The baby sat looking bewildered at its ejection after twenty-two months in a comfortable womb, then started comical attempts to get up. Its ears were still plastered to the sides of its head, making it look like a squat sea lion, and it moved in the same humping legless manner.

After half an hour the baby stood, to more cheering from our vehicle. And it seemed to spawn a celebration from the elephants as well, as they started picking up dust and spraying themselves with it. This coats their skin and helps protect them from parasites, but each blast knocked the little baby down, and she (by now I had seen that it was a girl) struggled valiantly back to her feet and watched the enormous battleship-gray cruisers that were in a paroxysm of excitement around her.

Being in Africa will undoubtedly be humbling. We will almost always be the slowest and sometime even the smallest animal around. And yet in the end, some of our most primitive emotions will unite us all — excitement over a newborn, caring for one another, protecting one another, competing for resources and food, communicating and working together.

We’re prepared and excited to gain an appreciation for all animal species. A couple numbers to put ourselves in perspective: the human population nears 8 billion while the total wild lion population is estimated under 40 thousand, leopards under 15 thousand, cheetahs under 8 thousand. As Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert writes about in “The Sixth Extinction”, there have been five mass extinctions over the last half billion years, and today, we’re currently seeing our 6th, which may be as devastating as when the asteroid impact ended the reign of the dinosaurs. I’m hopeful that the world can rebound again, but it may require its latest invasive species, homo sapiens, taking more of a backseat.

 

Buzzing Quito

On our last day in Ecuador, we set out to explore some of Quito.  After making our way over to the historic old city, we are greeted with much unexpected excitement.  First, we encounter a mob scene developing as street vendors and metro police swarm around each other, angry words shared, fists fly, lots of pushing, and for every person involved in the skirmish there are at least 10 more watching.  After chatting with a couple onlookers, we believe the issue is that there are many illegal street vendors who have been selling for years that the police are just now starting to crack down on.  It’s not clear who is in the right here.

To escape the chaos outside, we dip into the nearby La Merced Church, where we’ve stumbled upon a wedding in progress.  There’s singing and chanting, and we try to inconspicuously hide in the wings as the ceremony continues.  We soon venture back out where things seem to have calmed down only a little, we walk around the old cobblestone streets, and when we eventually make our way back to the church, we see the newlywed couple emerging.  While taking a couple pictures from the street, the groom spots us, make our presence known to his new wife, and gives us a thumbs up!

On the high of all that just happened, we continue to explore.  After passing a couple blocks of stores where locals stand in the street trying to sell products like mops, strainers and underwear, we soon get blocked by a protest.  After some investigation, we learn that they’re protesting the human trafficking of 50+ university women who have gone missing in the last year.  One powerful image that will stick with us is the cardboard cutouts of female bodies being carried down the street to represent those who are lost.

In an effort to process some of what just happened, we find a café nearby and recap the highs and lows of the excitement in Quito’s old town.

Cotopaxi

Our final hike of the trip is up to the Cotopaxi Refuge, which more serious trekkers use as their kicking off point to climb Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest volcanoes at over 19,000 feet.  Superficially, we aren’t too worried about the hike as it’s about 2 kilometers long and about 1000 feet up; however, on our way to the starting point, we get out of our vehicle to walk about 100 feet of particularly rough road, and we start to really respect how thin the air is.

We eventually hike up to the Refuge at 15,748 feet, all of which we realize count once we get up that high.  Our heads, stomachs, lungs and muscles are all feeling the altitude.  With the weather forever changing, the volcano towering ahead of us, and a vast landscape behind, we slowly and steadily make the trip up and down the short trail.

Ponchos and chaps

Atop our horses, them wearing saddles, us wearing ponchos and chaps, we set off towards Cotopaxi Volcano.  The fog has fully settled and visibility isn’t much more than 50 feet.  Just when leaving the stable, we spot an owl resting on a post swiveling its head to follow us as we pass.  The scene is beautifully eerie, and at the same time as the clouds begin to lift, the sun starts to set causing a very warm afternoon hue to welcome us back to our lodge for the evening.

Swing at the end of the world

Mora, mint, gooseberries, and babaco

We are generally strong hikers, or so we like to think, but on this trek we held a consistent spot in the back of the pack. The destination was the journey, and we were in no rush to leave the trail behind us. We were on a two-day hike through the Llanganates National Park, dressed in wellies with the imminent threat of rain that never came.

One guide led the way, the other tailed. Andrew, in his persistent habit to make fast friends everywhere he goes, began conversing with Juan Carlo. Juan Carlo steadied every flower I spotted for Andrew to photograph on his iPhone. He pulled fruits and plants from the ground to share with us – mint, gooseberries, babaco. We laughed as we compared the $.10 price of an avocado in Ecuador to the $2.00 price of an avocado in California. You could almost see the pain on Juan Carlo’s face when we told him an avocado may be closer to $4.00 on the East Coast, so we didn’t even broach the subject of avocado toast. Our favorites were the mora berries. They grew in abundance, naturally and farmed, and were shipped across Ecuador to make jugo naturales and vino.

Juan Carlo saw his family friend on the path, an older gentleman who owned a farm large enough to house fruit and livestock. Arnaldo was carrying a machete, and excitedly abided by Andrew’s request to look strong for a photo.

Before sunset we arrived at our camp, a covered flat in the middle of the park where our guides had squeezed together ten tents. The land was owned by a family who farmed trout, so as promised, we fished for our dinner in a pond containing hundreds of trucha. The family got to work, skinning and deboning to create an Ecuadorian feast for the group of us. We ended the night by dipping marshmallows in moonshine to watch them be engulfed by flames over the hot blaze of our campfire, with the rain that had held off pouring onto the tin roofs.

And the next day, we began again.

Chasing waterfalls

The city of Banos, Ecuador is known for its thrills, including some that just seem silly and nauseating like putting yourself in a ball that rocks like a pendulum while spinning.  From the menu of activities, Lindsey and I choose canyoning not fully knowing what to expect yet still having confidence we’d love it.  And like any good adventure, it starts by putting on all sorts of gear.  We have booties, wet suits, helmets, harnesses, carabiners and more.

We know we’ll be repelling down five waterfalls, a measure by which I try to control my anxiety levels as we go.  Heights aren’t exactly my thing, but when being pelted by a strong waterfall and controlling my descent by feeding rope through closed hands, at least I have some things to keep my mind off of the 3-story tall waterfall.  With that, I can report that by waterfall number 5, I felt much more confident, but I’m pretty sure I was still gripping the rope roughly 10x stronger than I needed to.  All of my muscles are sure to be sore from this one.

Throughout the adventure, Lindsey chooses to be afraid during the times when I’m not.  We take turns.  She checks and rechecks every piece of gear we put on.  Takes a while, and I’m not sure it makes her feel too much better, but it is something to keep us busy.  By the time we get to the top of the waterfalls, however, Lindsey settles into her role making me feel better about what we are about to do.  She is able to zip down most of the waterfalls and even graciously captures me in action as it takes me about twice as long to get down.  Thanks Linds!