19 August 2018
[Above photo: Flamingos at dusk in Nata Bird Sanctuary, Ntwetwe Pan, Botswana. ]
We are wrapping up our trip, and our whole African adventure, this week. I’ll put Linda on a plane in Lilongwe for Rotterdam and the International Midwifery Association conference in 5 days. I’ll attempt not to get killed driving the 4 ½ hours down the M-1 from Lilongwe to Blantyre, prepare the car for sale, pack my stuff, and fly to Boston in 10 days. More reflections as they arise but what an amazing time this has been.
After our luxurious sojourn in the Delta we slept in a large, crummy hotel in a cramped room smelling of disinfectant. How dirty was it that they needed to use disinfectant? I don’t use it at home. We drove east to Planet Beobab, a camper’s retreat in the northern Kalahari. One night there and one drive into the Magadigadi Pan system was enough to impress and suffice.
We then drove a few hours to Nata, near the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana. There was a bird sanctuary and since I’ve been (foolishly) trying to learn to identify the massive number of different birds wherever we find ourselves, Linda thought I’d enjoy it. She was right. We stayed two nights, one of them the only campers within the huge sanctuary. Snufflings and hoof-beats near our tent provided late-night entertainment. In the morning, two horses were at the ablutions block, trying to find water in the sinks! Horses I know and am not frightened of; wildebeest, not so much familiarity.
The Nata Bird Sanctuary is 230 sq km of rolling dry grassland and a huge salt pan, at this time filled with salty water and pink brine shrimp and surrounded by similarly-equipped marshes. Pink? Brine shrimp? Yep, the largest migration of flamingos in Southern Africa, hundreds of thousands at a time, come here. Since it has been a wet year, many stayed home and didn’t need to join the jamboree at these wetlands but there were tens of thousands of Lesser Flamingos and hundreds of White Pelicans. Plus, Red-billed Teal, Greenshank, Red-knobbed Coot, Black-winged Stilts, Pied Avocets, and more. During the day, the flamingos gather a few kilometers away, looking like a long, low spit of land extending into the salty pan. When you focus your binoculars on them, the individual and group melee becomes obvious. At twilight many take flight, joining long lines, and they land in the marshes near our viewpoint. The birds were wondrous to behold, the pink of their feathers exaggerated by the red of the setting sun. Linda ran 3 miles fast on the dirt tracks in the sanctuary while I slapped bugs and took pictures of the birds. [She is now a week into her NY Marathon training schedule. She’s running 8 miles today, Sunday, the day of rest. I am a slug, drinking a cappuccino, typing this blog entry, and enjoying the view of the elephants from the terrace.]
We next drove to Chobe National Park in the north, up against the border with Zambia, in preparation for our brief stay at Vic Falls on the Zambian side (Will I take that Ultralite flight over the Falls or not?!), camping for $10/person/night at a gorgeous lodge on the Chobe River bank. We signed up yesterday for a late afternoon game drive today and a riverboat sunset cruise totomorrow with a jaded sense of “We’ve really seen it all already.”.
Always the African surprise! As we drove in the park along the riverfront, there were a plethora of elephants, giraffe, waterbuck, impala (ever the impala!), and all manner of smaller beasties (a Slender Mongoose, a Two-banded Sand Grouse—an Endangered Specie), as well as wonderful water birds, including the Yellow-billed Stork and the Glossy Ibis. An old Cape Buffalo bull was lying down, all alone, by the riverside. “When they get too old to be of use (Protection? Sperm donor?) they are extruded from the herd.” What about just being kind and good-natured, not gossiping, staying out of other’s hair? Not exactly Cape Buffalo traits, I realize.
After we’d reached the end point of our drive we turned around to work our way back. 8 river boats and as many safari vehicles were all shoulder to shoulder. Must be something exciting. Indeed, two 5 year old lions, brother and sister, were lying down, intently eyeing the buffalo who, after a display of his remaining ferocity, turned tail and trotted off. The lions must have reconsidered. Youthfully exuberant male, “Looks like a great meal, sis.” Ever the realist, protector of the family, she replied, “Yep, but still too fierce and hefty for the two of us. Let’s look for a zebra.” Disappointed, “O.K. Still, we could have eaten for three days straight if the hyenas didn’t drive us off.” Massive, terror-inspiring predators, exquisitely designed to hunt. Bone-chillingly efficient. Like the more cunning of the Mafia hit-men. No troubling hesitancy, no pesky conscience. Certainly not sentimental. No anthropomorphizing the antelope before supper.
We’ve been reasonably adventurous, albeit avoiding deep sandy off-roads with our aversion to getting stuck and ripping out the exhaust system. We have had a longer vacation than most. But today, we chatted with the fellow in the adacent campsite. We’d admired his older (27yo), diesel Land Rover Defender, outfitted for extreme travel (roof tent, several spare tires, jerry cans of diesel fuel and water). He and his wife live in Queensland, Australia where he teaches diesel mechanics at various mines. They are 14 months into circling Africa, starting in UK, through France and Spain and down the west coast to Cape Town, then across South Africa, north into Mozambique and working their way back to Egypt, zig-zagging into the center of the continent so as to visit it all. Too long on the road for me, I confess. Although the sweet Bushbuck family—Dad, Moms (2), and Junior/Missy— and three young warthogs that wandered into our campsite, browsing on the unbelievably thorny bushes, reminded me of our bounty of wonderful surprises during our travels.
I’m enjoying this but am ready for it to end, ready for a different sort of surprise. Still, our road trip has been a fitting coda to the incredible journey of working in Malawi for two years. To think, 10 years ago this month I was mid-way into my first course of chemotherapy for my lung cancer. I thought I’d never hike into the Sierras again, let alone do all this. I do wonder why—or, rather, how—I shook off that carnivore. The size of an orange, wrapped around my subclavian vein. My son certainly applied himself to studying cancer and alternative treatments, since the conventional ones had such dismal outcomes. A study of one is just that—not really generalizable—but I would do the whole, complex regimen again if necessary.
It’s time in this post for my loose associations. I think we need our elected officials to have a track record of knowing history and travelling, both in the US and internationally, and not just from Sheraton to Ritz Carleton to Rockefeller Resorts. To call countries with low GDPs “shitholes” is so flaccidly ignorant. If GWB had ever read about the Middle East or owned a passport and used it, he might have had some sense that our invasion force in Iraq would not have been greeted with the joyful outpourings and flowers he anticipated. Ditto for our current Narcissist-in-Chief, using his “gut” and “shoot-from-the-hip-in-near-total-ignorance” style of decision-making.