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The herds of Linyanti

Linyanti is as different to Khwai as Khwai is to the Kalahari. We arrive by plane, but instead of our typical 10-minute drive to camp, we drive an hour deep into the bush. There are only two camps here, each with six tents, and the nearest village is over 2-hours away. We’re on the edge of the Botswana border; You can see Namibia in the distance. The land is a mix of deep brush and wetlands, and subsequently the first place where we encounter real bugs.

This place makes Moremi feel like a zoo. Here, the animals act as they would in nature, scurrying away as soon they’re seen. The hippos had a field day when we set up for our sun downers outside their water hole, snorting at us, showing us their teeth, yelling to say that we best be advised not to come any closer. Joe, our guide in this last safari camp, assures Andrew that they’re territorial only about the water, so brings Andrew around for a better view of sunset. Hippos are the second most dangerous animal in Africa, behind malaria spreading mosquitos, and they continue to show us why as their eyes follow, mouths open, giant bodies emerging.

The elephants here appear not in groups of three, but groups of thirty. When it’s dry, they walk past the truck in droves, slowly marching their way to the marshland. The baboons travel in groups even larger, and hysterically think that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. They’ll run away from the truck by hiding behind a tree, body in plain sight, slowly peeking glances back at you. Giraffes are surprisingly difficult to spot, considering their size, but when you do they look straight at you, a contrast to the baboons.

We are in the middle of nowhere, no wifi, eaten by bugs and surrounded by wild animals, and yet we’ve never felt safer. The bush, we decide, is our paradise – a feeling as much as a place.

Safari Life

5:00am – Wake up (This consists of a guide saying your name outside your tent until you wake up.)

5:30am – Breakfast

5:45am – Game drive (The animals stop moving mid-day, preferring the comfort of the shade.)

11:00am – Lunch

12:00pm – Siesta (It’s too hot to do anything. We recommend repeatedly soaking your shirt in water and standing in front of a fan until it’s dry.)

3:30pm- High tea (Botswsna was clearly colonized by the British.)

4:00pm – Game drive with a sundowner

8:00pm – Dinner

10:00pm – Bed (You must be walked back to your tent by a guide, because, wild animals.)

Khwai

Khwai was off to an adventurous start. Little did we know that our trip here would both begin and end with elephants. But first, the time in-between.

Banda was our fearless guide, leading game drives and always conscious to give Andrew the best lighting. He’s a photographer too, and had captured some unbelievable moments in the bush. When he got wind of a rare animal nearby on the walky talky, he’d speed down the bumpy sand roads so fast it felt like we were riding a bull. We made a game of ducking before the branches whipped our faces.

One afternoon we forewent the game drive to take a relaxing trip down the delta on a mokoro. We sank deep into the water on our boat as our guide stood behind, pushing us forward. It was a welcome respite from the adrenaline-inducing game drives. When a light rain started to fall, we put our cameras into plastic bags. Within 30-seconds, the sky opened and we were drenched, struggling to see through the rain. We were laughing hysterically as our guide tried to continue the ride as thunder roared overhead. As we were rushing back, Banda was shooing hippos away from heading directly toward us with an extra mokoro boat. Our guide nearly jumped out of the boat when a final bolt of lightning came down within a mile of us, hitting a nearby car. The rain stopped just long enough for us to have sunset drinks in the park before opening the sky again.

On our last night, the staff set the most special lantern lit dinner right outside our camp. We’d made friends with the other adventurers and spent the night laughing and sharing photos. Andrew and I had successfully convinced them we’d seen a leopard kill a monkey using an old video from Banda when we heard something in the bush. We shined a light into the distance to find one giant elephant about 100 yards from us, munching on a tree. He headed toward us, then another one, and later a hippo. There we were, dining under the stars, sharing the space peacefully with massive animals also trying to get their fill.

In our tent that night, you could see the elephant passing by before we went to sleep.

Charge

The flight from camp Kalahari to camp Khwai reveals a completely different scene. The Kalahari is a desert; the landscape below stark and vast. Everything is a shade of brown.  It’s a difficult place for most animals to survive. Zebras and wildebeest appear in droves in the wet season, having migrated for greener grass to eat as their more permanent residence regrows. Any other animal is more of a mission to seek out. Guides in the Kalahari have to be even more knowledgeable, treating every sound, every dropping, every track, and every plant as a clue.

Khwai, on the other hand, gets plenty of rain. The land is rich with plant life. Here, our guide tells us, branches are the most dangerous thing. Before we even hit the Moremi park, our destination for the first drive, we see a dozen hippos cooling off in the water. A moment into the park and we see a baboon scurrying up a tree, it’s baby wrapped with all fours around its stomach.  Impalas, antelopes, giraffes, buffalo, waterbuck, zebras, wildebeest, and warthogs are next, many with their young. Driving along a burnt patch, we see wild dogs. We know this is a great spot when our guide whips out his camera and starts shooting. There are only 3,000 left in the world, he tells us, and they’re very rare to see.

As we’re leaving, we come across elephants. They’re so massive and enchanting; gentle giants at the watering hole. Two male elephants start to play, or so it seems. They lock tusks and start rearing each other, yelling, throwing their trunks. It’s an act of dominance, and they push back behind the brush. Testosterone is flowing when one elephant reemerges, spotting our truck. He’s not going to let any animal, alive or diesel-fueled, get in his way. Our driver revs the engine to warn the other elephants to stop moving. If this elephant starts to charge, they’d be directly in our path of escape and we’d be trapped.  The elephant roars and mock charges the truck. We stand our ground, it turns, and we drive away unscathed. Branches are not the most dangerous thing in Khwai.

A view into a not so distant past

The bushmen are the indigenous people of Africa. They are hunters and gatherers, wandering the bush and avoiding lions to survive.

About 30 years ago, the government mandated that all citizens get an education. The bushmen were given the choice to stay living where they were in the national parks and forgo an education, or move into government subsidized settlements near the schools to participate. They chose the latter and so, everyone under the age of 30 speaks English in addition to their native language.

The native language of the bushmen is as varied as their tribes. Literally every tribe, of which there are hundreds, has its own language. All include a variety of clicking sounds, most of which occur mid-word. It’s very difficult to replicate.

As the rest of the community are non-English speakers now living in settlements, money has become problematic. Cattle herders is generally the best bet. Alcoholism is a threat. One tribe had the idea of offering walking tours as a way to share their culture with others, and so for three months a year, the bushmen move in to the Kalahari to make extra money.

We meet a group of about a dozen bushmen: men, women and children. They show us the plants they use to make poison for their arrows, how to start a fire using zebra dung, and how to dig up scorpions for entertainment value. We end the night watching the men play a game while the women chant a cheer.

It’s easy in this moment to be struck by the significant differences between the bushmen and ourselves. The adults are dressed in animal hides, but we must remember that this is a representation of how the Bushmen used to live. When they get back to their temporary settlement, they’ll put on Western clothing, not wanting to overwear their leather as these items are irreplaceable during the hunting ban. (The only exception to the ban is small game for bushmen only, as hunting is so core to who they are.) Every place has its indigenous population, and these people are often grossly mistreated. From our Western point of view, it seems that the government and people of Botswana have given the bushmen freedom to own the choices made about their future. The transition though, is new and only time will tell how it all unfolds.

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.