Going to Africa had always been a post-retirement dream for me. But when my friend Linda Hite came up with a month of camping in Southern Africa for less than $100 a day, excluding the flight, I was hooked.
The Explore Worldwide company is British, which means the trip was considerably less expensive than with a U.S. outfitter. And as such, out of 17 people, including the guide, there were just five Americans. After the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, U.S. tourists largely abandoned East Africa in favor of the countries we visited: South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Cape Town reminded me of San Francisco, with its bustling downtown, multiethnic populace (including many Malays), large city park and attractive location by a bay. We climbed Table Mountain, which looms 2,100 feet above the city.
We hiked in Cape of Good Hope National Park then went to see a colony of African penguins, also called "jackass" for their braying call. On boardwalks, we walked right up to hundreds of the birds, including fluffy, blue-gray chicks.
We headed north through South Africa's famed wine country, where the architecture reflected the Dutch colonial influence. We camped in a San (commonly known as Bushmen) reserve. They took us on a "bushwalk" to learn about food and medical uses of plants. It was fascinating to hear their click-filled language.
That night, men in traditional dress with leg rattles made of insect pupae performed dances around a campfire to women's chants. To our untrained ears, all of the dances and songs looked and sounded alike. But wouldn't our waltzes and rock 'n' roll dances and songs seem all the same to them?
We crossed into Botswana and transferred to classic, open-sided Land Rovers in which you stand to view animals out of the roof. Past terms used for big-game hunts - "safari," "game drive" - are now, happily, applied to activities in which tourists shoot film instead of guns. We headed into Moremi National Park for our first game drive.
Moremi was the most primitive of the game reserves we visited. We camped "in the bush" (i.e. no toilets and extremely sandy and marshy roads) and were instructed to never leave the immediate camp area because of animal dangers. At night, we heard hippos vocalizing in a nearby pond.
People come to Africa for one reason: animals. With all of the reports of mass extinctions on the continent, I somehow thought we wouldn't see abundant wildlife. But in the reserves, the variety and numbers are astounding. In just 2 1/2 days in one park alone, we saw hundreds of individuals of 18 different species - no park in North America could match that.
Of course, animals in reserves are, and are not, wild. Most species (even songbirds) are used to vehicles and the sound of shutters so your experience is remarkably intimate. Etosha National Park is 10,000 square miles, but fenced. The animals can no longer migrate and must drink from manmade water holes, but the tradeoff is they are largely protected from poachers and are breeding. However, many species are now found only in reserves and, as countries lack the resources for captive-breeding programs, are still destined for extinction.
Tourists all want to see the "Big Five" - elephant, lion, buffalo, black rhino and leopard - and we did. The first time we viewed elephants and giraffe, it was with something like religious awe, and we spoke in whispers. But after a few hours in Moremi, these species were so common, we all but stopped our compulsive picture-taking.
Elephants with babies between their legs and giraffe with lovely, haughty faces and with necks covered with oxpecker birds gleaning ticks passed within 10 feet of the Rover. One twilight, four lionesses flopped down in the road next to us; later, we saw a male get first crack at the kill (which the females supply) and moms batting their unruly, spotted cubs.
Male impalas controlled harems of up to 100 females, some with nursing young. In swamps, red lechwe had powerful hindquarters and splayed hooves to bound through water. Waterbucks' defense was a powerful, repulsive odor. Kudus with lyre-shaped horns navigated around termite mounds up to 10 feet high. Hippos were common, but normally only come out of the water to feed at night. We saw many eyes, nostrils and ears only. Hippos look at you, look at each other, snort then submerge. Motionless, large crocodiles shared the hippo ponds.
We took a boat trip on the vast Okavanga Delta, just 3 feet deep on average. I am an amateur birder and had bought a guide to the area beforehand, drooling over exotic species which are legends in ornithology. Our excellent native guides took special care to point out species to me, the only birder in the group.
We spotted Botswana's national bird, the stunning purple, turquoise and gold lilac-breasted roller; Zambia's national bird, the African fish eagle, very similar to our bald eagle with white head and tail; bee-eaters, tiny and bright as our hummingbirds; sacred ibis, which you know from ancient Egyptian art; the crested gray turaco (or "go-away bird" because of its call); jacanas, with extra-large feet to walk on lily pads; an endemic (found nowhere else) egret and crane; electric-blue starlings; and whydahs and mousebirds with tails twice the length of their bodies.
We headed for Chobe National Park, at the confluence of four rivers and four nations: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Every campground has its animal pests, but in the United States, I've never encountered an insistent ostrich, baboon family groups, vervet monkeys, warthogs, hordes of banded mongoose and jackals - one of which chewed up my sandal when I left it outside the tent one night. Our riverside campground had signs warning of the very real, nocturnal dangers of hippos and crocs.
At the Chobe waterfront, we saw three collared lionesses about 50 feet away, resting before a night of hunting. A female elephant and its adolescent calves came to drink on the beach. After first looking around intently, because they are at their most vulnerable, giraffe did their odd, laborious, splayed-legged stoop to drink. We also saw puku, a small antelope endemic to Chobe.
We crossed into Zimbabwe for a three-hour visit to Victoria Falls, named by David "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" for his queen in 1855. The African name is much more appropriate: "Mosi-oa-Tunya" - "The Smoke That Thunders." Victoria is a vast series of falls, dwarfing Niagara. In places, the spray was so forceful it was like standing in a shower.
We camped on the Zambian side of the river near Livingstone, from which we could see the "smoke" 10 miles away. We had planned to raft the famed gorge of the Zambezi below the falls. But with the river at its highest stage in 40 years, a float trip on Class I to II rapids had to suffice.
On a game drive in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, we saw a herd of the very dangerous and unpredictable Cape buffalo, watched a nursing zebra foal, and had a rare glimpse of four hippos on land during the day.
We also saw three white rhino - one-quarter of the entire population in Zambia. In just 40 years, poachers wiped out every rhino in the country. In 1990, it began trading rare sable antelope to South Africa for rhinos. The ones we saw are in a 2,000-acre, fenced reserve. Because they are such a valuable tourist draw, guards armed with assault rifles trail them 24 hours a day with shoot-to-kill orders. I'm guessing if the rhino charged you, the men wouldn't even raise their guns ...
We crossed to Namibia to see its crown jewel: 10,000 square-mile Etosha National Park. This is classic African safari country with savannah and a vast salt pan with maintained waterholes. We would see hundreds of individuals of one species, grazing with up to six others species, including satiated predators. Our guide said the grazers "know" when the big cat in their midst isn't hungry so ignore it.
Our Zambian driver hit the brakes when he glimpsed the only leopard we would see, retreating into the bush. We saw rare, endemic black-faced impala; dik-dik, the tiniest antelope at knee-high; herds of homely wildebeest; 50 zebra taking their first drink of the day; large groups of giraffe, kudu, gemsbok (oryx) and red hartebeest; spotted hyena; and three black rhinos. Our most unusual sighting was an aardwolf ("earth wolf" in Afrikaans, South African whites' hybrid tongue), a nocturnal, dog-like mammal that lives entirely on termites.
We saw South Africa's and Namibia's national birds, the very rare blue crane and the greater flamingo, respectively; three large walking birds, the korhaan, secretarybird and kori bustard; and a marabou stork, one of the world's largest birds.
We began hearing more German than Afrikaans in the campgrounds. Namibia was a German colony - remember, Bogey and Kate are fleeing the evil World War I Germans in "The African Queen" - then up until 10 years ago, part of South Africa. An Etosha campground was originally a fort established by the Germans in about 1900 to combat the rindepest cattle disease and hostile natives.
Campgrounds had flood-lit waterholes to view nocturnal activities. Linda likened it to being at the theater: Animals wander on and off the "stage," and you never know what will happen next. Spellbound, we watched jackals snapping at moths; a family of elephants, including four adults, two adolescents and two nursing babies; a rhino with her nursing calf; and a stooped, drinking giraffe.
In Namibia's featureless coastal desert, we visited one of Africa's premier rock art sites, Twyfelfontein. Elongated human figures were painted on ceilings of caves. Prey were depicted in hundreds of highly detailed drawings, with a level of artistry I've never seen in North America. Practicing what anthropologists call "sympathetic magic," people depicted herds of animals breeding or being successfully killed, hoping that that would manifest itself. We saw panels of elephants, giraffe, kudu, baboons, lions, rhino and even penguins.
We stopped at the Cape Cross fur seal colony, with its thousands of seals just on the other side of a low seawall. The stench and sound were overwhelming, but we got very close to the seals, including nursing pups.
Namib-Naukluft National Park is the size of the United Kingdom. The main attraction is sand dunes hundreds of feet high - which you have seen in countless ads and films. We climbed three to see the silky sand turn deep orange at sunset and sunrise.
On our return to Cape Town, we stopped at Fish River Canyon, on a scale of our Grand. Unfortunately, you can only go down into it on a five-day permit, so we had to content ourselves with watching the sunrise from its rim.
Contact Pat Devereux at email@example.com or 881-1224.