Posts from the ‘African Safari’ Category
Where the Rivers Ends – The Land of the Red Sand Dunes in Sossusveli, Namibia
Namibia is the least populated country on the continent of Africa. The long roads are lined with vast landscapes giving little notice to any civilization. Most people in Namibia live near the capitol of Windhoek or on the coast by the sea. The highlight of my travels in Namibia was a three day trip to see the famous red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, and here, Namibia’s number one tourist destination, did not disappoint.
We traveled nearly all day from the capitol city of Windhoek, mostly on unpaved roads and over three mountain passes, to reach our camp site in Sesriem. The landscape changed from semi-arid desert to dramatic rock cliff hills to open grass savannah. Late in the afternoon we stop in the small community of Solitaire where the land was dry and several varieties cactus flourished in the unrelenting heat.
On the way to the the lone gas station in Solitaire, there is an old car cemetery marking the entrance of this small settlement. The old cars and trucks are partially covered by the earth. On the outside of the general store there is a chalkboard which records the annual rainfall. We notice that 132 mm of rain has fallen to the earth so far this year. At the next shop we stop for a taste of the famous Solitaire Apple Strudel before heading onward to our camp.
once at camp we quickly set up our tents before heading out to watch the sunset before dinner. Our campground is the only campsite located inside the Namib-Naukluft Park gates. This park is known best for Namibia’s number one tourist attraction, the dunes at Sossusvlei. The dunes are part of the Namib desert and stretch 2000 km along the coast from the Oliphants River in South Africa to Angola. The dunes are comprised of 32,000 square kilometers of sand. The formation of the dunes started about five million years ago and were created from the sandstone off of South Africa’s Dragon Berg Mountain. The sand from the rocks flowed to the Atlantic Ocean from the Orange River. Then the current from the Atlantic Ocean pushed the sand onto the beaches in Namibia and the strong eastern wind blew the sand inland which eventually created dunes of Sossusvlei. These dunes are called Star Dunes, as the top of the dunes come together at a point. Winds from three directions blow together to create a point on the top of the sand.
Elim Dune was my first experience walking up the red sand. My feet sank down between the grains and left footprints in the pristine formation created by the east wind. At the top of the dune, we sat and watched the setting sun change the colors on the landscape. Some of the troop rolled down the hill like school children playing in the snow and they provided additional entertainment for the rest of us. The warm red sand stuck to their skin as they climbed back up the dune. All had smiles on their faces. Finally darkness overtook the sky and we turned on our flashlights to make our way back down the hill.
The next morning we woke up early to be on the road by five to catch the sunrise from the top of Dune 45. I loved to sit and watch the colors on the dunes change as the sun became more brilliant. As the sunlight increased, the dune became more orange in the daylight providing a very different show then in the previous evening when the landscape reflected the golden-pink sunset.
It was fun to jog down the side of the steep dune after the sunrise; And it was definitely two thousand times more quicker to jog down than the brutal hike to the top.
After breakfast we drove to the lot that would start our five kilometer hike further into the desert. Five in our group decided to skip the hike and have rangers drive them directly to see “Big Daddy”, the largest sand dune in the world. I actually preferred the hike. We were able to learn about the local plants and animals along the way. Though it could be difficult to walk in the sand, it was fun to watch the oryx and springbok run in the isolated dunes. It also was nice to have a bit of excise after the long ride from the previous day. The payoff for each climb was the decent off each mountain of sand. It was always fun to jog down the from the top.
It was amazing to watch the dunes get higher and more pronounced as we walked further through the valley where a river once flowed to where Big Daddy was located. Big Daddy is three hundred and twenty-five meters tall; The tallest in the world. Sossuveli name translates to mean “Where the River Ends”. This name is appropriate as this dune was near the end of an river bed which has been dried up from the desert heat more than 2,000 years ago. Beside the dune is a dried up lake appropriately named Dead Vlei or Dead Lake. The trees here have been dead for seven hundred years. It was here I saw my first mirage. I had to ask if that was really water out there. It looked so real.
By the time I had reached the lake bed I was quite thristy. I had finished more than two liters of water by half past ten in the morning. I thought that I had brought enough water but I had not. It was quite hot and I thought we had been out there hours longer than we actually were due to the extreme heat. I was so glad to find some water and shade once we made out way back to the parking lot where we would get a lift back to our vehicle.
The lift back was really fun. It was more like a large 4×4 dune buggy and I could tell the ranger loved to drive it in the sand. Upon returning we found the five who had chosen to ride in the ranger vehicle both ways to and from the main dunes. They already seemed well rested from their morning adventures.
I later found the swimming pool at Sesrim Camp was emerald green. I could not see six inches below the level of the water. In my life, I never thought I would ever enter such a body of water; But the camp was overwhelmingly hot and inside our tents was even hotter, so I thought I would take the risk. “What if there is a crocodile in the pool and we just can’t see it?” I asked before I entered the water. Then someone from my group replied, “Only an American would think that. It’s fine.” I entered only because there were others who had already taken the plunge even though I was sure I had heard news reports of alligators finding their way into pools in Florida.
At sunset we walked the Sesrim Canyon which is now dry but some years holds water in the rainy season. We were met with another amazing sunset to complete our day.
The long trip back to the capitol city was broken up by a “walk with the chetahs”. This was something that I did not know was included as part of the three day tour. It seemed like a dangerous thing to do especially when I realized that our guide was a gal under five foot with no weapon. Everyone was going and I was pretty sure I could outrun at least a couple of people in the group, so I went headed and signed the indemnity form.
The Nla’an ku se Namib Conservation Center is situated on a 500 hector enclosure and there mission is to research, attempt to rehabilitate and return carnivores to the wild. Tracking the chetah’s was easy since each wore a collar with a different radio frequency.
After we entered the gate our short statured guide bounced up on the hood of her jeep with what looked like an old “rabbit ear” tv antenna. She waved the antenna from right to left listening for the frequencies of her cats. She would get down and drive a little bit then she would jump up top her rig again. This happened several times before she decided that we were close enough to walk the rest of the way. I thought it was cheating to use the radio frequencies, but after yesterdays hike I was not one to complain.
We toke the short walk to where the first cat sat under a bush protecting her zebra meat staff brought into the enclosure a couple days ago. She was full and not moving, but I made sure that there was always one person closer to the chetah than me. I was glad she opened her eyes so I could take a picture.
Returning to the vehicle we drove a short distance before finding two more chetahs laying in the shade of a large tree right by the road. Close by them were two young male chetah’s. The male chetah’s looked a little scary like they were after something….. And they were.
“You get away from those girls.” Our guide yells to them as she slaps her hat and approaches the two males. They jump back like scared kittens. Then she looks back to us and explains that they are three years old and just started their sexual maturity. “They are two little teenage boys. But don’t worry they are not interested in us.” I spoke up, “I am pretty sure they are just interested in you.” She looked back to the chetahs. “Yes. You are right.” She smiles back. Meanwhile, the chetahs hunch up their backs and look over to our guide. I can tell they are scared of her. I feel more confident and have a picture taken closer to the cats.
My adventure in Namibia will be one I never will forget. I feel truly blessed to have witnesses a nature wonder of this world with so many amazing people. The chetah walk was an unexpected bonus.
Upon my return to the capitol, I met a friend from long ago. I had met Antoinette fifteen years ago when we both were traveling in France on a two week Contiki Tour. These tours were tailored for the eighteen to thirty-five year old crowd. That had been my first venture to Europe. Antoinette and I had lost touch, as I had with so many in our little group, but it seems that we were able to pick up right where we left off fifteen years ago.
It was fun reminiscing the past and reminding each other of the good times we experienced with fellow travelers on that trip. We promised each other to not let another fifteen years go by before meeting again. I know we were both left more curious about what happened to our other friends we met so long ago.
As I reflect on my trip to Sossusveli, I wonder… who on this trip will I see again in my future. I guess we will just have to wait and find out.
I find it difficult to leave this little piece of paradise. One can truly lose track of time in a place with sun, a pool and amazing travelers to visit and share experiences. Did I mention I am staying here for ten dollars a night and the bar has glasses of South African wine at two dollars a glass? It seems hard to believe that I have been here for two weeks but I look at the calendar and the holidays are approaching so it is time to move on.
If you wish upper class digs then Livingstone can accommodate you at one of the premier hotels right on the Zambezi such as the Royal Livingstone. In my current accommodation, I have to share a television and had to watch more soccer and rugby than I will ever watch in the rest of my lifetime; But hey, traveling is experiencing another culture and I have done that here. I have also enjoyed visiting with other travelers and learning from their experiences. Another nice thing about this spot is that people staying here do not have a set tour schedule and we learn and change our route by the people we meet.
Livingstone has the low key canoeing on the Zambezi to high adrenaline sports such as river rafting, zip lines and bungee jumping. You can walk with the rhinos or the lions cubs or you can ride on top of an elephant. You can join sunset cruise or choose a microlight or helicopter ride over the falls.
If you are reading my blogs you already know that early on I choose dipping in Devil’s Pool and feeling the water fall from the edge. You also know I dressed up and attended high tea at the Royal Livingstone. From my last blog you know another highlight was going safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana.
For my high adeline activity, I choose to go white water rafting on the Zambezi. Looking back I think I should have researched that one a bit more as it is common to have that “drowning feeling” at least once during the trip. One day when I was at the pool two girls were joking with a friend and wanted to recreate that “Zambezi Experience”. One girl grabbed his legs at the knees and moved them up and down. The other continually pushed his head under water. After a few minutes they had had enough and they allowed their friend George to resurface. He said, “Wow. That pretty much felt exactly like the Zambezi.” I said to him, “You felt like you were going to drown too?” He responded, “Yes, I was not sure I was going to make it.”
For me, I had fell out of the raft three times on rapid five, six and seven. On the first rapid I was pulled in by the girl behind me searching for something to hold on to as she was falling. I was surprised that I was to “keep my wits” about me, get my feet forward, stay in the middle of the river and keep my paddle up as I had learned in the states. Even though I never had to use that knowledge when river rafting back home. I thought, “Okay…that’s done. Everybody falls out once in a lifetime.”
The very next rapid I am bounced out again. This time I had chugged a bit of the Zambezi while I was out of the boat. I get back in and then comes rapid seven. This is the longest rapid in the chain. Here the entire boat flipped. Guide and all were in the water. As a former lifeguard I knew to swim to the light. When I reached near the top I was pulled down again. I swam up again to the light and I was pulled down a second time by the current. The third try I made it to the surface. This time I had no idea were my paddle was but didn’t care. I was still in the rapid and had a hard time moving through it. Needless to say I was not hungry at lunch as I was full from all the water I inhaled.
I admit that I was a bit shaken up from that ride without a raft or a paddle. I guess you could say I literally experienced being “up a stream without a paddle”….I was worried what was in store for the next eighteen rapids. It is not like I could just just climb out of the gorge. I hung in there and luckily did not fall out again. The next day I decided on a different activity, one more in line with my new philosophy that I was too old to put myself in such high adrenaline situations, so I went back to the Royal Livingstone for a facial and massage in a gazebo by the river. I decided to leave those “other activities” for the young ones.
While in Livingstone I also went on a sunset cruise and did a walking safari to see the rhinos. I really enjoyed having a chance to experience a walking safari in Livingstone. My guide told me several times that I must not run. “Rhinos have poor eyesight and can not see you. You must not run or move quickly. You are just a blur if you don’t make noise.” He continued, “If you get scared then grab on to my belt but do not run. You may only let go or do what you want if I am dead…If I am dead, then you can make up your own mind, but until then you have to listen to me. It is my job to bring you back the way I found you.” I told Charles okay and that he was in charge. I also told him that my mother would be grateful to him for bringing my back in one piece. He smiled and we had an understanding.
I really did not have a worry in the world when I was walking with Charles in the wild. In addition to my guide, I also had a military scout with a automatic riffle. After the Chobe experience, and having two people looking out for my safely, one with a gun, I was sure things would be fine. After the safari we drove back through Mosi-o-tunya State Park. Charles asked, “You did not seem scared to walk with the Rhinos?” I said that I was not after my last safari. Shortly thereafter we drove up to some elephants. The guide had the driver drive in a way that caused the male elephant to charge towards the back of the vehicle. He said, “How about now? Were you scared with the elephant?” I smiled back. “Yes.” He laughed. I knew we were far enough away that we were okay..so did he. “That’s okay. He got to do his duty.” Charles added. Then elephant walked off the road respected by his herd for protecting them from our vehicle.
I really enjoyed the activities I choose to participate in here. I must admit that my favorite days were sitting by the pool and talking with the people I met. Today, from the poolside I sheepishly state that I will leave tomorrow and will need the bill. “You are not leaving so I am not giving you the bill.” Stanly, one of the staff, tells me a second time and walks by again. Yes, some of the people I met here were starting to feel like family and it made leaving difficult. I know that the friendships I made here have forever change me.
I thought I had several great safari experiences so I was not looking to add another safari outing to my itinerary. However, I had several recommendations to go into Chobe National Park in Botswana so I thought I would make a detour and check it out.
It was about an hour taxi ride from my hotel to the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, where the borders of four countries meet. Namibia is off to the right, Zimbabwe across the river and off to the left and straight across the river from Zambia is Botswana.
The water safari on a large barge was a great way to view the crocodiles, water monitors, hippos and other wildlife in the water. In the center of the river, the marshland island provided a feast for grazing animals in the dry season. In the wet season this island would be covered by water again. The animals swim across the water to get here. I am surprised to learn that so many animals, even the buffalo and the elephant, are good swimmers.
The island is located right between Namibia and Botswana. The guide tells us that the flag of Botswana was placed on the island after the Netherlands solved the island property dispute between Namibia and Botswana in the nineties. Namibia wanted the land for farming and Botswana wanted the land as conservation for the animals. After much study of the geological area the island was determine to belong to Botswana.
The are many impalas, cape buffalo, birds and other animals enjoying the water and the green vegetation. Elephants, kudos, and giraffes come down from the parched earth of Botswana to the drink water. Crocodiles find a dead baby elephant in the river and have a feast. They point their snouts up then chomp and gulp their meat. More crocodiles join the party late but there is enough for everyone. One elephants stands motionless and watches the scene.
Later in the afternoon we pack our bags in the jeep and drive to the national park. On our first game drive we see a lion resting in the shade under a tree. All the usual subjects are in the park as in previous safaris. Then we find a leopard resting in a tree with a full belly. All four paws hang down; He doesn’t move an inch at first, then he passively looks over to us. I know that look……It’s the same look as we Americans get after eating too much at the annual Thanksgiving meal. His eyes lazily look over as if to say, “You’re not even worth it.” Soon other jeeps find us. The leopard gets a little annoyed then sits up and shows a few teeth. Lacking energy to do anything else he lays back down and just lets us watch as he goes back to sleep.
That evening we went back to “check on our lion”. It is nearing dust and at first we spot an impala standing still and watching a lioness intently. The female lions eyes do not move off the impala and it is like a contest of “who can blink first” between the two. A male lion, with a full mane, lays under the tree, behind his mate, watching her, the impala and all the jeeps accumulating on the dirt road nearby.
We all whisper under our breath to the impala, “Back up, back up.” and “You need to move.” but she does not understand or just does not heed our advise. After some time, she moves a few meters but stops behind a nearby bush. “Keep going. Keep going. Don’t stop.” We all hope for her. The lioness moves first, then the male stands and follows. They do a slow jog to the end of the bush and halt. The lioness peers through the green bush and stands motionless. All at once the chase is on and the lioness is out of sight. Neither she or the impala reappear.
We follow the male lion who stops to roar at the other jeep on our tour. We speed to where the lion stands. It is apparent that he is not happy with either of us but we are safely in the vehicle so we watch. He is not going to let us proceed to look at the nearby kill.
Just then another male lion with a large mane appears from behind. He jogs toward us, marks his territory and then lays fifteen meters behind us on the right of our jeep. The other male lion continues to walk back and forth from the left side to the front of our jeep and every once in a while roars. At some point I realize we are all alone.
It is getting dark now and tourist not camping inside the park had to leave the area. I am not sure if they had even seen the chase. I never noticed their exit. The other jeep in our party has now left. We are alone and the lion behind us gets us and approaches. I think, “Shit. We are the impala.” At some point, both lions are roaring and we feel surrounded. When X, our guide, tries to drive one way the lion in front changes directions and he has to stop. He backs up a little and tries to shift directions. Blocked again. “X, I think I am okay not to see the lions anymore tonight.” I state calmly.
At this point the girls from Northern Europe who were sitting on either edge in the first row of seats behind our guide have moved center. They are now sitting together in the center seat. Anika continues to film. I have put my camera away and I am watching the lion from behind stare at me. Everyone chirps in to let our guide know where the lions are as he drives. Just then I hear X call “391” and then say something in another language. I know he is calling the other guide whose jeep code is 391. I think, “Okay someone will come to help us.”
Sinker, the other guide, drove back to us straight away. I was feeling better to have two rigs there. However, the lions were not deterred. Our guide was able to get back on a road and drove conservatively along the bumpy dirt road. Sinker drove in the opposite direction. From behind me I hear Steve, a fellow traveler, say, “X, one is coming behind us.” Then I hear, “They are both coming now.” I hold on as I look behind and see that both lions decided to run after us. X turns up the speed and the guys in the back continue to relay how far the lions are behind us. They are still running. It is dark.
The lions chased us for about two hundred meters after X was able to safely speed up the vehicle. We arrived to our based camp, in the middle of the park, just minutes away from where the lions were chasing us and then had our first view of the small tents we would be housed.
Several people started drinking to calm their nerves. When I heard that there was not a night guard, as I was used to I in the other safari camps, I decided not to drink anything, including water. I decided right away that I was not going to have to leave my tent for any reason until morning.
That night the guides had most of the safari goers believe that that type of lion encounter happened all the time and we were safe……but I was not buying it. “What if we would have gotten a flat?” I asked X when we were alone. “Well…That would have been a problem.” When I asked if he was nervous at all, I could tell he was giving a line. Though what else was he going to do. No one would be able to sleep.
A couple hours later, I asked our guide to walk me to the toilette, behind the camp, before I retreated for the night. As we walked back toward my tent he laughed, “I see you have the tent in the center.” “Of course! I choose this tent because if the lions do something else “non-typical” tonight I did not want to be in the first tent he reached.”
The next morning both X and Sinker admitted that particular situation had never happened before and was quite unusual. We all had a sense of humor of the encounter by morning and could laugh about it. “Did you see the girls move and sit in one seat together?” X then laughs in a deep voice. “I will never for get that. I will surely remember this trip the rest of my life.”
Happy to be in the daylight, we head out on a morning drive and were lucky enough to not only see the rare wild dogs but also a chase and eventually chomping on an impala. “It’s just nature. Everyone has to eat.” our guide says. Later we find another impala taken down by a leopard. The leopard has hidden the remains of the impala under a bush to save for an afternoon meal. I think to myself, I am so glad that I came to Botswana and I realized that just because you have an exciting “first time” predator experience, it does not mean that the unpredictable wild won’t have more exciting adventures in store for you. I loved my Botswana safari and I am even more grateful that I survived it.
YouTube link to video of lion encounter:
It takes just over thirty minutes to travel the fourteen miles from the nearest city to Scott and Gina’s village. We have completely left civilization as we know it. There is no electricity, no running water, no stores for supplies and no taxi’s that drive past this place. Therefore, it is not possible to easily “just make a run to the store”. Women walk the entire way to the city with large baskets of garden vegetables on their heads that they will sell at the market.
We are definitely living the simple life here and no one is in a rush. We seem to wake up and go to bed with the sun around here. It is just easier than using your headlamp or dealing with the mosquitos that come out at night.
Everyone has time to welcome the new visitor. Villagers hold their right elbow with their left hand when outstretching their hand to shake mine. They give a little bow then clasp both hands together and reach to shake my hand a second time. “You do realize we are going be stopped by everyone to shake your hand on the way to the clinic.” Gina said after the third formal greeting. “I thought it was nearly a three mile walk? How will we get there on time?” “We are on Africa time. It will be fine, whatever time we arrive.”
That was definitely a different way of looking at things. The school house was the only place that seemed to run on time. I spent several days assisting at the local school, while I was in the village, teaching a math review class for ninth grade students. These students were going to take their end-of-the-year exams the following week. Only students who passed the test would be allowed to attend high school the following year. Student who continued to high school next year would have to board at the school during the week since the school would be so far away.
I don’t think I ever had students so eager to learn. We reviewed about two-hundred pages of the required math textbook. I had to write important concepts for the students on the board since the students did not have a textbook for math. Only the teacher had a book.
The first day I started teaching I had not realized that I had missed their ten o’clock break until ten minutes to twelve. I asked, “Do you want to take your break now?” I heard a unanimous “no” coming from the group. “Well would you like a five minute break?” Then one boy answered for the group, “You have already missed the break; Just keep going.” I looked at the class who were seemingly agreement and continued on. I thought to myself, “That has never happened to me in America” then continued teaching.
In the middle of my class on the first day a student rapped on the door. “Can I join your class?” “Come on and sit down.” I replied. The boy did not have a uniform on but I did no think very much of it. Not all students in the lower grades could afford uniforms. After class the same boy caught me outside the door with his brother who had been listening to my class from the window. He was actually an eleventh grade student and he wanted to prepare for his twelfth grade exam that he would take in one year. He has to pass all portions of the exam to complete his diploma or he would have to try again the following year. His brother was a twelfth grade student and he wanted help with preparing for his exams in a week. I spent a little extra time with the two students at the clinic until Gina was ready to walk home from work. They seemed grateful for the extra help.
The other comment that through me off guard while teaching was on the last day when we finished for the day. I had already returned one additional day more than planned. Since I was leaving the next day I told them I could not return but I was going to have Scott and Gina report back to me on how they had done on their test. All the kids said thank you and I hear two students shout, “God bless you.” Again, that has never happened in America. I found that the students really wanted to learn and were grateful for help in their studies. It was a pleasure to assist with their learning.
Scott had assisted with me when he was able to break away from his duties. I understand that he is continuing to help the students review as time permits. It sounds like both he and the students are enjoying it. Gina worked nearby at the clinic. Since I was teaching four to five hours straight when Gina popped to in I had her do a few stretches with the kids. They both loved it.
I spent about two hours a day walking to the school or clinic. One day the rains came on the way home so Scott and I ducked in for cover until the rains subsided. Luckily Scott had brought the cards so we could play another game of cribbage. Scott and Gina had wanted to learn how to play cribbage in order to play with the other Peace Corps volunteers. Needless to say we practiced every chance we had on the trip. However, when we stopped under the shelter to play during the rain, it did not take long to amass a small crowd to watch. The kids laughed when I shuffled the cards.
The simplest things would collect a crowd especially when Scott, Gina or I were around. Everyone was interested in their friend from America that looked so different than them. Gina and I sang songs or invited groups to do art activities in the afternoons. Gina had to try to set certain times when the children could come over so they had something to look forward to during the day but would not be outside out hut all day. Gina would make them “do work” before playing. Such as pick up a piece of trash. This helped instilled some type of work ethic as well as the importance of keeping the village clean. However, after it was time to “go home” the children never stayed home for long. The adults are so busy in the village, farming and maintaining daily life, that young children did not do much all day and loved any and all attention.
Scott, a fisheries volunteer for the Peace Corps, walked us to one of the community fish ponds. Some villagers recently sold their fish and made their first ever profit from the man-made fish pond. This had been very exciting for all villagers and provided the needed boost to keep working on the project.
Life in the village is mainly spent doing things which we take for granted; Fetching water, boiling water for drinking, heating water for bucket showers, maintaining your garden and animals (aka: one of your main food supplies), washing laundry by hand, washing dishes in a basin, preparing water with bleach to wash you hands and providing your own transportation by walking or biking to places. One of the most difficult tasks is getting the coal for cooking to burn and stay hot throughout the cooking process. My last day in the village, Gina and I cleaned a large steel drum in order to catch rain water in the rainy season. They are hoping that this will ease the number of trips to the stream to get water.
Next door to Scott and Gina, the family has two young brothers that seem to take advantage of all the experience Scott and Gina have to offer. These brothers have goats, cows, sheep and chickens. They also have made four fish ponds behind the house and dug there own well with a bucket. When I asked how they got the hole that deep they showed me where there were vertical steps straight up in the wall. I could not believe that they had dug this over one-hundred foot well without a machine. They told me they still wanted to go deeper, “until the water was to their waist.” Finally, the last day, I was in the village their pregnant goat birthed twins. They would have the first goats in the entire village that would be used for milk. Gina, who had worked with goats extensively back in the United States, had worked with the family for weeks to get this goat prepared for milking. They decided to named the goats Gina and Evon. So, now I have a goat named after me in Zambia.
I had a wonderful time with my friends and getting to know their village. I know that I was deeply touched by the people I met while I was there. One lesson learned is that the people in the village do not have much, but are happy and grateful for what they have. My stay in the village reminds me to also be grateful for the blessings I have in my life and not to take anything for granted.
I look out across the Zambezi River and see what at first looks like smoke towards the end of the river but it actually is mist coming from Victoria Falls, the second highest falls in the world. Victoria Falls was named by David Livingstone who first came to the island beside the falls on November 16, 1855. However, the local people have their own name for this place, which I think is far more appropriate, “The Smoke that Thunders.”
We embark on our journey from the shore beside the famous Royal Livingstone Hotel. It was a short trip to the island. We walked to the cliff where Livingstone stood and looked out at the falls. When Livingstone witnessed the falls for the first time he said, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
It was lovely. Cliffs so steep and water misting up in all directions. We observe the plaque in honor of Dr. Livingstone and then make our way west on a trail lined with dry grasses. A double rainbow circles the falls where we are heading.
We come to the edge of the river and prepare to climb into the water. We wade in and after a few steps, we push off with our feet and glide toward the basalt rocks in the center of the river. It is a short swim to the rocks that are covered with water half of the year. It is only possible to reach Devil’s Pool in the center of the Zambezi from August to January each year. After the rains, the falls are too high and fast to reach this special area.
We reach the center and carefully maneuver the sharp jagged basalt rocks worn by years of the powerful moving water. My lifeguard explains where to jump in the pool near the face of the falls. “Jump out. It is too shallow right there.” He points to the three to four foot area under the water near the rocks. “Jump there. Where the water is greener. I will go first. Watch were I step to get to the jumping off point.” He walks out carefully and then jumps. He glides out to the edge of the falls and positions himself.
“Okay. Now you can go.” He points and verbally guides my every step to the edge. “Your left foot needs to be where your right foot is standing.” I reposition and look up. He stands ready. I jump.
Upon resurfacing I swim out to the edge. We sit and look around from all directions. “If something bites your feet, they are just fish. All you have to do is move your feet and they will go away.” A little later he guides me to turn and look over the edge. “Don’t worry….I will hold your foot the entire time.”
I turn and put my arms over the falls. It may be the low water season but I feel the water move powerfully over the cliff. I see the mist rise and the water shoot giant splashes up from the rock all the way down the side of the cliff. I hear the water crash over the side. I see the river below and small falls in every direction beneath. The double rainbow I saw earlier circle all the way around the falls. I grasp the full meaning of Livingstone’s statement when viewing the falls for the first time and I am sure that there are angels watching with me.
“Here you need to sign this.” Silvia hands me a piece of white paper and points to a bold line. “Print your name here. Sign here. Write the name of your next of kin here with their phone number.” “Do you want me to read this?” Sensing that she was in a bit of a hurry. “It just says we are held harmless if anything happens.” I start filling out the form. “Has anyone ever been injured here?” “Well, we have all had our bites. They are wild animals. Anything can happen.” A few second later she continues in a softer voice. “We do select the chimps that people are allowed visit. The chimps you will visit have not had a serious incident with a anyone.” I discover through the course of our conversation that any chimp that has bitten or attacked a human is no longer allowed to directly interact with a visitor.
“I think that this will fit you.” Silvia hands me blue coveralls and I began to put them on over my clothes. “Here put these in your pockets.” Silvia places an overflowing frisbee full of cookies on the desk in front of me. I fill my large pockets with all the snacks. “Be careful of Dominique. If he tries to swing on your arm, mind your hand.” “Okay.” I respond. “Now follow me and I will introduce you to your guide.
“Evon, this is Dominique he is going to take you on your walk.” “Are you the Dominique that I need to watch out for?” “No.” He smiles. “That’s the chimp. I will point him out to you.” Dominique was a four year old chimp who was playful but did not realize his own strength and, like some toddlers, he had a tendency to bite. This chimp was actually named after my guide. Dominique then tells me about the other five chimpanzees I would be walking with that day. Delores was a five year old chimp that liked to play with Dominique. We would also see Karla and her baby, Kitty, as well as Simms, an older male, and Cindy. Cindy was not able to have a baby so she acted as a surrogate parent to Dominique and Delores at times.
We move towards a cement wall and climb through a small door. Once in, an iron grate closes behind us. Then a small one door, or really a one-and-a-half by three foot window, opens. My guide slips through and turns. “Now you.” I step through and crouch down to pass by the small entry.
I may be taking one directive at a time but I soon realize that the chimps know this routine. Six chimpanzees, one after another, come through a nearby window, just like the one I had come through. Immediately they take turns reaching in my pockets. I try to assist them. “Just let them grab for the cookies themselves.” Dominique tells me. Some of the cookies spill on the ground as we walk.
The six chimps get to roam in one of their favorite enclosures today. “This encloser is used for the tourists on bush walks. When they come in this area they know they will get treats.” “Was it hard to get the chimps to come this morning?” “Yes.” “It was?” I was surprised. “Yes. It is difficult because all the chimps want to come and they can not. They know only these chimps get cookies and they want to come too. That makes it difficult”
Dominique explains how each of the six chimps arrived to the orphanage as we walked. He also spoke about the history of the orphanage and the other one-hundred and eighteen chimps cared for by the foundation. “Silvia’s mother, Sheila, started the orphanage in the early eighties. Did you meet her?” “Yes, I was introduced to her this morning.” “The first chimp was brought to Sheila by her son-in-law who was a park ranger. That chimp was close to death and he asked her to help. Then came another and another. She did not set out to create this place…it just happened.”
We arrived to their favorite tree which had drooping branches and vines they could easily use to swing. The chimps walked around the tree and reached in my pockets for the last bits of remaining cookies.
We walked around the fourteen acre enclosure and when the chimps realized I had run out of cookies they started retracing our steps to find broken pieces dropped on the ground. They played, ate leaves, groomed each other and sat on trees staring out across their domain. Each time Karla went a bit too high or far out on a limb the baby would whine just a bit. The mother looked to ensure her baby was okay but made him climb to her. “He is still learning. All the time she is watching and teaching.”
Our visit would last two hours before it was time to leave our six new friends. Next we would visit the three large enclosures of the remaining chimpanzees during their afternoon feeding time. Each time we walked toward a several acre enclosure the chimps looked like they were happy. One sits away from everyone else, far up in a tree. Another walking with is baby under the brush. Some recognize the lead guide with me and start to gather near the fence. Each time the call for lunch went out at each of the enclosures the pleasant animals started hyping up like they were in a zoo.
Some chimps got so excited they start a bit of a brawl. The staff open doors an the chimps go to their proper feeding destinations. There is a bit of a scuff if a chimp tries to go into another chimps usually claimed area. The chimp wanting to “change things up a little” loses every time and goes back where he or she should be eating. The food comes and even though the staff does a great job of passing the fruits and vegetables out evenly, some chimps “just go a little” berserk. At some point, there always seems to be another brawl over portions. Each time all the chimps begin to screech and “egg on” the instigator.
There are a few of the chimps that stay far away from the action. These chimps almost seem more civilized….And they know it. Of these chimpanzees, one was named MIlia and she was my favorite. Milia was a forty year old chimp, the oldest at the orphanage. She came from Cameroon and was initially rescued by Jane Goodall. She lived at her conservatory in Tanzania for five years and had attempted to put Milia back in the wild; But it did not work. “MIlia had been part of an entertainment show and knew how to drink alcohol and smoke a cigarette. If you give her a shirt or a skirt or a sweater she will dress herself. Since she could not go back to the wild successfully, Jane Goodall brought her here. See that blanket?” “Yes.” “Someone gave that to her and she keeps it clean. She does not let anything happen to it.” Milia looked at me through the cage and seemed happy but it looked like she was tired of the morons sitting next to her.
Many of the chimpanzees had been former pets and at some point they could not stay with their human families. Cindy, one of the chimps on my walk earlier that morning, could even flip the television channels when she arrived here. Zambia no longer allows people to keep chimpanzees as pets so families had to find other homes for them. “Many of them would have a difficult time going back into the wild after how they had been raised in homes or for entertainment.” My guide adds, “Unfortunately we are completely full now and can not take anymore at this time.”
While I was there I also learned that many babies had been born in the orphanage. However, female chimpanzees are now placed on birth control and they are no longer allowed to have babies in captivity. “See that chimp? He was one of the last born here. His name is Gonzaga.” “We have a university named Gonzaga where I live.” “Well, he is actually named for the students from the University of Gonzaga from your state. He was born when a group of students from Gonzaga were here, so we name him after the college.” We usually get two groups of students from the University of Gonzaga every year.
In the evenings, I was able to visit with the current volunteers just finishing a two week stay at Chimfunshi. I enjoyed hearing their stories about their life and what brought them to Africa. The four volunteers had all learned about this opportunity through Impact Africa. Impact Africa was one of many organizations that connect people with volunteer actives in Africa. It was clear that this had been a wonderful experience for all of them.
The highlight of the trip was defiantly walking two hours with the six chimps but visiting with the other travelers was another highlight of time spent. I even received an invitation to visit one on my travels. We will have to see what works out.
I was told by the host of my camp in Kenya that South Luangwa was one of the best parks in all of Africa and that I was traveling there at the right time. “It’s going to be hot…but it is worth it.” Ralph told me. He was right. Even though we did not see thousands of wildebeest and zebra in migration, the variety of wildlife was more numerous. Especially in the variety of birds.
“You know, if Yuki was with us we would not be bypassing all these birds.” I turn my head back to Scott and replied, “I was thinking the same thing.” Yuki, a good friend of both of ours, was on my mind today and I had wished she was with us, sharing this experience. In all my life, our friend Yuki has always loved birds; Whatever the distance, she could tell us what type of bird we were viewing. For Yuki, and any bird lover like her, this place would be paradise. On the other hand, we were looking for big cats so her presence may have gotten in the way of our mission as we did not stop often to see our feathered friends.
We did stop a while to view a fish eagle, which looks much like a bald eagle and the national bird of the United States. We also spent a time observing a large group of bee eaters who were on migration from Tanzania and Kenya. The bee eater is a blue, red and yellow bird which migrates to Zambia each year for mating season. It is one of the most colorful birds I have ever seen. They make their homes in the sides of the dirt cliffs. We watch as the baboons crawl along the dirt attempting to eat the birds and their eggs. Other birds that would be of interest of our friend, and other bird lovers, would be the black and grey heron, various storks ( including the saddle-bill and yellow-bill), Egyptian Geese, Sacred Ibis, Hammer Cop, skippers, starlings, weavers, cuckoo and the pelicans. The various nests of the weavers and other birds I know would have also been an interest to my friend.
In addition to birds there were a greater number of different types of animals in South Luangwa. In fact, on the first morning out, we saw the same three of the five “big five” I saw in Kenya: the cape buffalo, African Elephants, and a pride of lions. The were a greater number of elephants, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs and hippos here than in Kenya. In fact, the elephants regularly came through our camp.
“Watch out for the elephants and don’t get within thirty meters of them.” We were told on our first day. Later that night, I had went back to our tent to take a shower before dinner. It had gotten dark but I told Scott and Gina I would meet them in the self catering kitchen midway through camp. Self catering was a bit more of a challenge because a previous camper did not store fruit properly and a elephant ripped off the door and and destroyed the refrigerator the previous night. Still visible was the crack in the cement wall of the kitchen the elephant had left behind. They had replaced the door but the refrigerator would not be replaced for a few days. So we had to store our food at the main kitchen on the other side of camp.
I followed my guide to the kitchen. We turned the corner and 20 meters away was a elephant just outside the door. I could see Scott and Gina busily working away. “Are my friends aright?” “Yes, the is a guard near. But we need to go this way.” We headed right, away from the kitchen, towards the main lodge. “I don’t really need to eat tonight.” I responded. Thinking I would just go to bed without dinner. “No. It will be just fine. Come this way.” I followed but looking behind the I saw the elephant’s truck reach toward the screen door of the kitchen. We made a wide circle around the area and came back from behind the elephant who had moved a few meters forward. “Hurry in now and lock the door” the guide told me. I tapped on the door, “Hey, can you guys unlock the door.” “Sure, what’s the rush?” Gina stated as she walked calmly to the door. I was surprised that Scott and Gina had not heard the elephant right outside, not even a foot away from the screen. For such a large animal with big feet I am always surprised how quiet they are in the wild. We did finish dinner and I was grateful to get safely back in our tent that night.
The monkeys and baboons were all over the camp. The are so cute until you realize that you must watch out for those fast moving creatures. Our first run in with a monkey came at the lodge when Scott and I had grabbed a piece of fruit out of storage for a snack. We had Gina’s apple on the table waiting for her and we see this cute little monkey coyly approaching us with big beautiful eyes. “Oh. Look at the monkey.” Then with one leap to the table the beast grabbed the apple and was off so fast we did not know what to think. “Where’s my apple.” Gina stated later as she arrived to the lodge. “Too late.” Scott replied. “Monkey got it.” Then a couple days later one of the two nuisances destroyed our front porch. It was obvious they had tried to get into the tent but we had it locked. They did however, defecate all over our bathroom which had an open air ceiling. After learning their tricks and knowing when to clap our hands or alert their presence of staff we found that they could be managed.
Ralph was also right about it being hot in the in South Luangwa. Everyday it was between 40 and 49 degrees Celsius; That’s 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the hottest part of the year, before the rains. Most wildlife was huddled near any body of water left. Baby impala and puku had a difficult time surviving due to the heat and lack of water. Drives were scheduled to avoid the hottest part of the day. Morning drives were scheduled between six and ten. We would have tea at 3:30 in the afternoon and start our night drive promptly by four. Vehicles had to leave the park at eight in the evening. We spent most of the afternoon hours in the pool. Gina and I started wearing our swimsuits to the morning drive so we could hop right in the pool when we returned. The sunsets were glorious and after dark the spotter used a white light to search for the wildlife. Early morning and after dark was the best time to find the cats. They, like us, wanted to be in the shade during the day. The night, however, was the best time to view a kill as the cats had an eyesight advantage after dark.
On our drives we also saw crocs, giraffes, zebras, impalas, albino frogs, three genets, a civet, mongoose, porcupines, hyenas, puku antelope, a water monitor, kudus, water bucks and bush bucks. The kudu were wonderful tan colored, deer-like creatures with vertical ivory stripes. The large and rare water buck had a big circle around it’s tail. It was five drives or nearly eighteen hours of searching to find the animal I most wanted to see. “South Luangwa is your best chance to see the Leopard.” Ralph, from the Asilia Camp, had told me when I was in Kenya. And we found it just when I had almost given up hope.
Just before sunset Alan, our guide, stopped the car and looked to the distance. During the drives, especially in the daylight, I have spotted most of the animals right away. I look out and see nothing. I turn my head to Alan to see what direction he is looking. I turn back and still see nothing. The spotter in the back says something to the guide and we wait and scan the land. Finally Alan says, “Leopard. I am sure of it.” “Where?” I reply. “It has to be over there. See where the impalas are looking.” He continues, “I first heard the screech in the distance of the baboons. Now, hear the impala’s they are whistling to each other.” I did not notice the call of the baboons to be any different than in the camp when they had gotten excited but I clearly heard a short whistle coming from the impalas. I had not heard that sound before in Africa. “How do you know it is a leopard and not a something else? If it is a leopard why aren’t they running.” Alan replied, “The leopard is alone and they are faster than the leopard. As long as they know where he is, they can outrun it. The leopard must have the element of surprise to be successful. That is why they usually don’t hunt during the day, they wait for the night to hunt when the impala can’t see as well. The leopard’s advantage at night is in it’s ability to see in the dark.”
We continue to stare off into the direction the impalas are looking; Towards the dry vegetation. “Can we get any closer?” I hear from behind. A minute later I hear Ilya again. “Can we get any closer?” Ilya and Marian have been on all of our drives with Alan. They have meetings in the capitol but came up to South Luangwa for a side trip while they are in the country. Ilya started taking pictures as a hobby but has had pictures appear in the National Geographic magazine. He had the biggest camera lens I have ever seen in my life. I turned and saw Alan contemplate his question. “You can’t get over there. Can you?” I reply. There is a strict policy of no off-road driving in the game reserve. I could not see a road leading us to where the impalas were looking. Alan replies, “I don’t see a way.”
A moment later, Alan starts the car and turns on the cracked cotton dirt with large splits earth. The Land Rover bumps up and down. I didn’t realize how deep the fissures in the earth were until that moment. Up, down, up, down the vehicle stops in a crevice. Alan restarts the vehicle. I hold on to the handle bar in front of me. And look out the side of the Land Rover where the door would be. Alan had me sit in the spotters seat that trip. The side doors and windshield had been removed to allow for easy viewing of animals and tracks in the dirt. Now it gave me a clear view of the earth as the vehicle tipped sideways in another fissure in the earth. I think to myself, “Oh no, we are going to be stuck here.” And I wonder if our guide will get in trouble for going off road. Then I think to myself. “I am a sitting duck to that leopard out there.” I hold my breath. Alan restarts the engine and we are half way to the location the impala’s were watching. We move forward. “There it is.”
I look ahead and finally see a hind leg and tail of the crouching leopard moving quickly to the small thicket of dried brush. I can not believe how his coat blends in with his environment. We are about half way to the brush from where we left the road. I can’t believe that this is the second time in my journey a guide broke the rules for something I really wanted to see.
“I am afraid it’s gone.” Alan says as we drive closer to the thicket. “I didn’t see it leave the thicket. There is a blind spot where we couldn’t see but it could be there.” I reply. We turn gradually left and make our way around the small thicket. The passenger side, my side, of the vehicle is towards the five meter in diameter brush we saw the leopard run toward. All eyes were on the brush; Cameras ready. Then I hear a deep, long roar which ended in a high pitch and I was eye to eye with the leopard. Faster than a snap of a finger the leopard pivoted and ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t even lift my camera at first as I realized my feet were about three meters from that leopard. There was a split second I had thought I was going to be its meal.
As it pivoted I saw the incredible strength in it’s hind legs. Every muscle worked in perfect unison to go from zero to a full sprint instantaneously. The feet all came together an out so quickly. I stood up, turned and just watched. Then, I remembered my camera. I snapped two pictures and then he was gone. It was a large male and he was so big, so fast. I had seen the leopard and he was beautiful.