Into the Wild

My parents have been visiting from the States, and our discussions have made me realize that my accounts of my recent travels left several gaping holes (mainly due to internet access on the road).  One thing I neglected was any real mention at all of wildlife.  This included a self-guided safari in Kruger National Park in a rented Tata Vista with Sara, mountain-biking in Mlilwane NP in Swaziland (and suffering through the abduction of Alex’s frog, Hoppy); facing off with elephants and baboons in the mean streets of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; and guided day trips in Botswana’s Chobe NP, Moremi Wildlife Park, and Okavango Delta.

Though photographs certainly provide the best description, I’ve included some safari shorthand below:

Baboons: See elephant (nuisance), only smaller and less unique.

Birds: a surprising addition to the list.  I have always imagined birds to be quite boring (though flying, ironically, ranks number one on the “Superhero Attributes I’d Most Like to Have.”). However, armed with a checklist, a bird chart, and a pair of binoculars and all of the sudden we have a changed reality.  Now every detail of each bird is studied and logged on a stimulating challenge to find and identify every bird in the park.  It’s a two-person gig: one with pen and paper, the other with the binoculars:

Me: “It has orange markings on its wings, blue chevrons on its chest and a tail about twice as long as its body.”

Sara: “It’s the Southern Ground Hornbill!”

(high-five and mutual recognition that we are complete dorks.)

Buffalo: Hmm…how did this guy get in the Big 5?

Cheetah and Leopard (the most pressing question of the bush after “Will this eat me?” is “Do I add an “s” for the plural?): elusive and mysterious.  Solitary hunters, they lurk amongst the trees and brush, resembling snipers.

Crocodiles: After the T-Rex and Nessie, still the most frightening animal in the wild.

Elephants: the rats of Africa.  They are a nuisance, eating crops and tearing down infrastructure.  Locals in Zimbabwe expressed to me that they wish they could shoot them, but of course are prohibited.  Twice, we got “mock-charged” by one, and let me tell you, these guys can move fast.  Turns out, if their ears are extended, it means they are angry.

Giraffe (and Elephants): the most unique of the large animals in the bush.  Where the heck did those things come from?

Hippos and Rhino (black and white): apparently dangerous, but boring.  Never saw one move.  Not once.

Impala: like squirrels, they are everywhere you look.  AKA, the McDonalds of the bush, they have a furry, white “M” imprinted on their butts and represent for most predators a fast meal.

Lions: known as the Kings of the Jungle, but apparently, the hyena is not afraid to steal its kill.  Seriously though, if I could be any bush animal, it would be this one: lie around and sleep in the shade all day, while the many women of my harem hunt for dinner.

Vervet Monkeys: same old story: cute and furry (see:  Fascinating, agile, little guys.  They win you to their side quickly.  Also, head over heels for sadza.

Zebra: basically just gangly horses with a snazzy coat.  Now if they raced these things, that would be interesting.


Best. Hitchhike. Ever.

It was the only day in a full week of early rises that I overslept.  In fact, I believe it is the first time since I moved to South Africa that I missed an alarm, despite not even having a watch.  I frantically began to herd my belongings into my backpack, patting around the entire tent floor in the muggy darkness.  “6:00 am!” I kept repeating.  “How could it possibly be 6:00 am?!”  Whenever I am required to rise early in the morning, my internal clock goes bonkers, waking me up multiple times in the night and usually resulting in my being awake 45 minutes ahead of time.  But today–6:00 am!  I was supposed to meet 5 other guys for a taxi at 5:30.  The last bus for Gabarone leaves at 6:30 am.  I scurry around , wadding up clothing and stuffing it into remote nooks of my increasingly large backpack.  I can’t see a thing, and can only hear the ruffling of vinyl and buzzing of zippers above my own self-rebuke.  It’ll take a miracle to get to Gabs now.  What am I going to do?

Half an hour later, I’m sitting in the cockpit of a Cessna Centurion T210 (T for Turbo) climbing to 11,000 feet.  The yoke twists in front of me as if controlled by a ghost.  Gauges and needles spin in a flurry on the dashboard as the engine hums and the Okavango Delta disappears behind us.  The air is cool as flight control dictates instructions in a code language of numbers and abbreviations.  On my left, Adam responds in kind, adjusting the rudder, nuancing the fuel mixture and commanding the yoke (causing its reciprocal action in front of me).

I have never been in a prop plane before, much less a private jet.  As I stood by the side of the road in Maun, waving at every car that passed, the most I hoped for was a quick lift that would get me to the center of town in time to catch a lift at least part way across the country to the southeast.  Best case scenario was that the bus left late and I was lucky enough to experience the 11 hour nightmare of a ride.  I picture sweat, chickens, 30 people in an 18-seater, fat people squeezed into skinny seats with holes and no padding, Nigerian gospel music, and potholes that rival fault lines, making your head well acquainted with the ceiling above.  Instead, I’m sitting in a cushioned chair high above the Kalahari sands and the raving minbuses, with only the combination of cabin pressure and my sinuses to worry me.  I have hitchhiked on 4 continents, but never have I found my way onto a plane.

After 15 minutes waiting for someone to stop, a beat up Land Cruiser purred up the road from which I’d come and paused beside me.  The driver motioned me to the passenger seat and introduced himself as Adam.  Adam runs a safari company in Maun and was heading to Johannesburg to pick up his family.  When he found out where I was going, he asked if I wanted to come with him.  I expressed interest, but was under the impression that he was flying.  “That’s right,” he said.  “I am flying.”

On the way, we talked about his experiences travelling Africa, interests in History and Anthropology, and the process of getting a pilot’s license.  He recently hosted Morgan Freeman on one of his safaris.

As I sat in the Johannesburg airport, I replayed the morning.  If I had woken up on time, or if one of the cars that passed before had stopped, of if the buses had left later, I never would have had this experience.  At the time, I lamented how unlucky I was.  My mind is too finite to understand long term implications.  It is humbling.  Sometimes, we have no idea what amazing gifts and opportunities can come out of seemingly awful luck.

Adam called it fate, I prefer to call it a blessing.  The chorus (from a song by the band I’m From Barcelona) going through my mind all morning, “damn, oversleeping again” , was transformed into hymns of joy.  Praise Jesus!