Cultural tourism can feel a little like a cottage industry in Africa. There are so many Masai villages, for example, with so many colourfully clad warriors telling you about their ancient way of life and offering so many intricately beaded trinkets for sale after visiting the typical tiny, dark, smoky huts and viewing the, of course melodious, courtship dance. But, that’s the cynical take on things.
In previous emails on my trips I’ve written about conversations and insights that enriched even the most canned tour of a model village. The masks and scripts slip, and before you know it you and the warriors are talking to each other as mutually curious human beings trying to connect more across divergent personal back stories or now-globalized aspirations than language itself. It is also clear that tourist dollars finance the preservation of communities and traditions that some people value and wish to engage part-time or completely as a way of life. And I generally think that’s a good thing.
With all of this in mind, I was still a little worried when three San, or Bushmen, surprised us with their silent appearance in our camp as we were preparing to go meet them on a nearby game farm. Something in me braced for one more canned experience that I would try to forget rather than write about. Even worse, I thought it would be marred by a lot of earnest condescension, linguistic miscues and fellow travellers or our more urban guides laughing at, not with, Bushmen who were in high spirits and eager to begin the bush walk they would lead. Instead, the walk was one of the highlights of the trip.
The obvious purpose of the bush walk was to show us how the San live off of land that seems to hold very little bounty. Nothing obvious, like berries, fruit and nuts, hung from any trees. So watching the focused, instructive headman read the land, finding food and water in or under low-lying shrubs and twigs, was simply amazing.
I’ve watched food shows in which chefs pay homage to modern-day foragers who are mostly clones of themselves. But seeing the San leader in action made me realize that the honour belongs to knowledge and practices that are far more ancient and universal. This guy even gave us a tasting tour of local greens, plucking from one plant then another, and showing us how lemony, garlicky or peppery leaves that had nice flavours on their own were even better when combined. He then dug, by hand, some substantial roots from under strands of small plants that were barely visible in a thicket and appeared on the surface to have little life left in them.
The translated quips from all of the San men throughout the walk had us laughing, with not at them, and even at ourselves, way more than we’d probably expected. Their confidence, humour and self-awareness belied any notion that they felt inferior or were primitive. As we were heading to the little thatched tent settlement these desert nomads would normally build for temporary residence to sample the afternoons harvest, the leader did a little stomp and shimmy next to the 4×4 and said, according to translation, Time for disco!
I have to say that the sour, queasy memory of airplane eggs (wolfed down because they nearly starved us on the out-bound South African Airways flight) was still fresh enough to make me wary of sampling all of the results of our foraging. The scraping, grating and slicing of unwashed roots with a rusty spearhead was just more than I could handle at that moment. But I was told that the huge water plant, hydration of last resort in times of drought, was a little bitter but refreshing, and that the other long tubular tasted like a really juicy radish. (The equally charismatic San guide at Meno A Kwena later did a little medicinal foraging during a break on a game drive near the Baines Baobabs. He returned to the 4×4 with a handful of bitter roots that he claimed would treat gonorrhoea in case someone else ever needed to, in the future, of course.)
At one point the San leader dashed away to pull a big leaf from yet another shrub growing at the base of a big tree. With this elephant ear leaf he then did a mercifully brief and funny G-rated mime of wiping his butt. This was logical he said with a shrug to our raised eyebrows: we’d foraged for most of the afternoon, eating some of what we found along the way; he’d shown us how they poisoned arrows used to hunt game with certain plants and explained how long it took the stalked game, depending on its size, to die; and the trio had done a dance around the campfire he built celebrating a successful hunt. He then presented this leaf to us and laughed as we oohed and aahed over its unexpected pillowy Charmin-softness. Mother Nature richly provides for the whole gastronomic process, start to finish.
Later, I noticed a series of perfect circular impressions, filled with rocks, arranged in the sandy ground under a tree and asked what they were for. It turned out to be a super-sized version of mancala. It was as if you’d taken four of the wooden boards on which the game is usually played, placed two side-by-side and the other two at the ends of these, creating a long rectangle with four holes across and I don’t know how many on the vertical. Two of the San then started playing their apparent version of mancala, but with rapid counting and strategic moves over the extended board that they said could keep the game going all night.
I never cease to be amazed at what you can see if you just open your eyes and look. An encounter that I was prepared to write off told me a lot about a people who sometimes only registered as courteously reticent, eagle-eyed guides and trackers during game drives. And I know I have much more to learn.
It was common on this trip to hear lions roaring just about all night. This was a typical African night, according to our guide, in which the cats were only announcing their presence in their territories to friend and foe alike. I got used to falling asleep to these sounds.
Cats also walked roads that were never far, no more than 50 feet really, from our campsites to get from the bush where the slept all day to the valleys where they hunted at night. We assumed they’d checked us out silently long before they announced their proximity with a roar, or were lurking obscurely in surrounding bush without roaring at all. The only consolation was being fairly certain that we were not on lions menu. Instinct and bad experiences tell them to keep away from humans, and any cat known to develop a taste for us is usually eliminated fairly quickly so that it doesn’t last or become contagious.
That said, we had one thrilling and marginally frightening experience at our Deception Valley campsite. Sometimes over dinner we tried to figure out how far roaring lions were from us, and the path they might be taking around us. But something was different, at least to my ear, on one particular evening. I could clearly hear the roaring trail off into a series of lower decibel grunts that one could not usually pick up unless cats were really close. This wasn’t a distant echo; it was the separate sounds of encroaching lions. So I kept asking our guide where he thought the lions were at any given moment. He’d vaguely say far away and moving diagonally away from us. I thought he was wrong but had no reason, other than the increasing clarity and loudness of the roaring, to dispute him. My foreign ears could have been deceiving me.
Turns out, the guide probably knew better all along and was downplaying things in order to put us at ease. In a matter of minutes, we were in the midst of the sustained physically vibrating rolling thunder of several lions pacing just outside the dim cone of light that barely covered the perimeter of our camp dining area and did not reach any of the dirt road or bush surrounding us.
This roaring went on for a long time, to the increasingly wide-eyed discomfort of some campers. The staff, who claimed to be so used to it that they would not normally respond, eventually had to take flashlights and go out into the darkness to intimidate the cats. There might have been less concern if we had been able to see them. But, we were peering into a void sitting ducks unable to figure out if they were just vocally curious or enraged and preparing to charge us from such a close range. The lions backed off a bit in reaction to the flashlights, but stayed in our vicinity roaring all night. We were always told to stay in our tents at night, but that went without saying after this event.
Our guide’s theory, confirmed the next day by a freelance filmmaker with off-road driving privileges, was that lionesses had cubs hidden in the area and the pride was surprised to find us so far within their comfort zone. We saw the big male trotting back and forth through the bush across the little dirt road from our campsite that morning; he thankfully seemed indifferent to us. Like I’ve said before, we are in their space on these trips.
I wanted to go to Meno A Kwena to belatedly witness the rebirth of the Boteti River that had not flowed for 30 years. The areas I photographed from my tent used to be a dry riverbed containing one man-made water hole that, at the height of the dry season, attracted thousands of dying zebra and elephants that would rip up the plumping as the areas groundwater was depleted. These scenes made for some iconic photos but must have been difficult to watch. Now the tall acacia trees that grew and witnessed so much misery over the decades are drowning in the flow of water that began last year.
The charm of this place is really apparent at night when the old-world grounds and tents are lit by the soft glow of torches, lanterns, candles and a big campfire (bush TV). Its owner David Dugmore is a rather Christ-looking man with an almost messianic conservation mission, who deserves one of those so-called genius grants from the MacArthur Foundation for his efforts to save wildlife habitat and benefit cattle farmers at the same time through the Water For Life Project.
This is what I understand from a long, interesting conversation with David as he drove me and his daughter from camp to the Maun airport. Botswana built a series of controversial fences intended to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from wildlife to its all-important cattle ranches and smallholders. This put the country’s two primary income generators high-priced, low-volume safari tourism and lucrative beef sales to the E.U. in more direct conflict. Since cattle must be free-range to eat enough during the long dry season and by custom, these fences (which initially caused death of hundreds of thousands of migrating wildebeests and zebra by cutting off their access to water) have increased in number. They criss-cross vast areas of land and continue to haphazardly block normal wildlife migrations. And their beneficial effect is the subject of constant research and debate. For instance, because the porous fences randomize migrations on both sides they can bring free-ranging cattle and ever-roaming or predatory wildlife in more contact at many points.
David has proposed a series of broadly fenced, water-sourced corridors between game parks that would stabilize or routinize wildlife movement and open up more areas in the southern Kalahari to limited, sustainable eco-tourism; and give cattle holders regular access to huge uninfected areas of grazing land outside the relatively narrow wildlife corridors, including some less utilized areas of existing game parks; and continue to use earnings from growing tourism to rationally implement some obvious conservation solutions and experiment with others. It sounds like a win-win situation, but building the community and political consensus for this visionary project has been difficult.
Still in good shape. Folks seemed genuinely happy with and even quite protective of their president, Ian Khama, the other bi-racial leader of a country and son of the country’s founding president. For an interesting angle on the efforts of British, South African and Rhodesian officials to prevent the marriage of his parents, read Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, by Susan Williams. I’ve never read a love story so movingly entwined with the building of a country.
A few people expressed vague concerns about Botswana’s future. But my sense was that they just did not want its generally accepting and good-natured populace to simmer in the slow boil of mounting vice and aggression before realizing they were cooked. That seems like an extremely remote possibility. But, South Africa’s perceived out-of-control violence and Zimbabwe’s political chaos and corruption are close spectators on the horizon, and so any, even minor domestic issues make some people think, “There but for the grace of God goes us”.
* * * * *
A fascinating trip ended on a note of (to me) unjustified disappointment for fellow travelers. The Holy Grail of safaris is the leopard siting – and we didn’t have one. It wouldn’t make or break a safari for me. I’ve seen leopards napping or snacking in just about every other acacia tree in the Serengeti, fleetingly in spots they were known to favor in Kenya and Botswana, and in a few random roadside encounters. They’re sort of like rhinos (but more beautiful and not endangered) in my view: compelling for unique or mysterious reasons that hard-won or chance encounters don’t always do justice to. Or like diamonds – of real but inflated value because artificially rare for a variety of reasons?
When I get back home, the leopard photos are not my best or most memorably obtained images, so I sometimes struggle to see what all the fuss is about. Silent killers? OK – got it. Those nature shows make leopard spotting seem easier than it really is: they don’t tell you that behind the scenes 25 local trackers are constantly on the trail. I understand the importance of seeing leopards in the wild to first- or one-time safari-goers, and would love to have gotten my own money shots of them this time around. I just don’t share the belief that trips should be judged any less successful based on whether one has that experience.
And yet that sentiment inevitably leaks into things. We were almost running with constantly mobile wild dogs, which are much rarer and more elusive than leopards. None of us were “twitchers,” but cheeky birdspractically posing and flaunting their colors for us proved irresistible. We passed folks who’d missed the handsome lions that seemed to greet us with lazy nonchalance in almost every game park. Elephants carried on everywhere, giving us thrilling, threatening and graceful close encounters
that will probably be fodder for good stories even years from now. And the backdrops for many of these experiences left us in silent awe of how nature’s tapestry even in a dry land against empty blue skies can relax and captivate us.
And still our last full day of game driving became a single-minded search for a leopard last seen weeks ago along the Chobe river. I remember noting that a usual sign of its presence – the remaining head and legs of an eaten antelope dangling over a tree limb – was missing here so far. But our eagle-eyed guide spotted one old carcass barely distinguishable from a tangle of limbs that last day, and became a man on a contagious mission. He focused with an admirable dedication on piercing really dense bush for that one local leopard that might be resting in its shade. This was the kind of terrain where if you’re lucky enough to see leopards it’s because they cross paths with you indifferently on their way somewhere else; you could miss several receding deeper into the thickets in response to the noisy commotion of all the 4x4s. But one could feel the dramatic landscapes surrounding us gradually becoming notable more for the one animal they lacked than for all the diverse vibrancy on display when we breezed past one beautiful or iconic moment after another as if we’d simply seen enough of them by now. Boring? Hardly, but the chase to beat the clock and find that leopard was on.
In the end we didn’t miss that leopard for lack of looking. Luck simply passed us by. Folks were so relieved to be breaking down their tents for the last time on the last day of camping that they dallied and lingered over breakfast already summing up the trip. Instead of leaving camp for game drives by 7 a.m. as usual, we were still packing the trailer. This minor delay proved costly. On the road heading out of Chobe at about 7:15 wepassed another guide in a 4x4 full of tourists who told us we’d missed a leopard crossing the road just yards ahead by moments. It was walking toward the area we’d scoured the day before, probably skirting our campsite as passing elephants, hyenas and other unseen animals had on previous days. We peered in that direction for a few long (and quietly longing) minutes, but the leopard was either hiding in the bush or gone.
There’s probably a lesson on life somewhere in this intense, frustrated 24-hour search. You can draw your own conclusions.
On the plane from Livinsgstone, Zambia to Johannesburg, South Africa, I had an exchange that became another odd commentary on the safari experience. A kind old man from rural Zimbabwe sat beside me. He’d been on small planes puddle-hopping across the region of his birth as an aide to missionaries and NGO workers before, but never on a jet to a foreign country. He literally did not know the basics. I buckled his seat belt for him, and showed him how to tighten and unbuckle it. I explained that the food and drinks being offered were included in his ticket price, that he could select any available options and ask for more, and that he’d get substantial free meals on his long connecting flight to London. I assured him that the little bag he curiously examined from the seat pocket in front of him was just for possible air sickness, definitely not the restroom itself. And I finally convinced a bemused skeptic that Joburg was not Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe, as we prepared to land after the brief flight. At one point, he asked where I was from – New York – and then replied, “And what country is it in?”
Many things left this soft-spoken gentlemen as amazed or puzzled by modernity as I was at certain times about an eternal wilderness just days earlier. He repeatedly leaned over me to peer wide-eyed out of the plane’s window. As he took it all in, he asked if every little settlement in the hinterlands below was a known village. He also concluded that the sprawl of Joberg was a “big town,” ruefully noting the snaking of “too many cars” (shaking his head with an expression of prescient concern) and speculating that there must be “many shops!” (nodding and smiling expectantly) down there. Every remarkable patch of earth or visible construction was mischaracterized as something familiar to him from his recently more isolated world: mountains were more hills; white sand or salt pans, patches of asbestos; roads, trails; rhythmically rolling hills topped with bush (ancient sand dunes once under water), farms; South Africa’s remote nuclear facilities and power plants or any large buildings, shops again in villages; and so forth almost until we landed. And he had earnest, genuine questions that even I couldn’t answer about some of his corrected observations.
Instead of laughing at this seriously inquisitive elder’s limited worldview (something I’d never do), I ended up chuckling at my own reflection in the mirror of his wonder at things I take for granted. Fate had turned the tables on us in a strange way. Joburg’s suburbs were as compelling and mysterious to him (a village community leader on his first NGO-related trip to London) as the Okavango Delta or Savuti’s plains were to me on safari. Did we tourists look like this as we peppered our guide Evans with occasionally off-base questions about aspects of a natural world (or African politics) that he knew intimately and respected deeply or barely even noticed anymore? I doubt it given the presumptions of being western and wealthy, but who really knows. He was engagingly witty and sincere enough to always give us solid answers. I hope I achieved the same generosity when responding to my temporary neighbor as travel fatigue set in and I began the mental transition back to my real life.