The Okavango Delta, Botswana

11 August 2018

[Above photo: Wild dogs preparing for the evening hunt with their pack of 11.]

As Linda reminded me when we were attempting to plot our next moves after Windhoek, Namibia was the focus of our trip, with Botswana and Zambia as embellishments.  Having been in the Okavango Delta, one of the largest delta systems in the world, it is difficult not to see it as a destination more worthy than most.

After spending two nights camping at the Okavango River Lodge on a grassy verge at the edge of the flow and a day in dusty, busy Maun, we travelled by speedboat 45 minutes into the Delta to Boro, a Bushman (San) village of about 300 inhabitants. There we climbed into a mokoro, a 16 foot long traditional narrow low-sided canoe, piled in our luggage and watched the world go by as our guide for 3 days, Stewart, poled us upriver. After 1 ½ hours we pulled to shore and set up camp adjacent to a young couple, Tom and Anna, from UK. We enjoyed each other’s company for their two-day stay. After they left, we enjoyed the silence and beauty. 3-4 hour game walks were punctuated by short mokoro rides and lazing around.

The mokoro is better than ACE inhibitors for elevated blood pressure: silent, smooth, in Nature. Whether poling up the side of a “main channel”, of which the Delta has many, or swishing through reeds in the marshes, we’d come upon herds of zebra, red lechwe (medium-sized antelope), and wildebeest. One evening we travelled in the mokoro to a lagoon inhabited by hippos, responsible for more deaths by animal than any in Africa, save mosquitos. One swam towards us, repeatedly submerging for 4-5 minutes only to reappear much closer. We felt nervous, since if he decided to get fierce we’d have no way out. They can move very quickly, both on land and in the water, despite their bulk.  We were amongst reeds and grasses in 4 feet of water with no land nearby. He was curious and eventually returned to his pals at a distance from us.

We saw all manner of birds, from Fish Eagles and Blacksmith Plovers to Sacred Ibis, Coppery-tailed Coucals,  and African Jacanas. I now can distinguish 4 kinds of doves by their call: “Work harder, drink lager” (Cape Turtle Dove), “I am a RED-eyed dove” (Red-eyed Dove), Laughter (Laughing Dove), and “My mother’s dead, my father’s dead, my sister’s dead, what shall I do, do, do, do, do?” (Emerald-spotted dove).

The game walks on the mokoro trip were wonderful.  We three would walk softly across the savannah and through the sparse bush, alert to sight and sound. There was elephant scat all around; much of it contained very hard pooh-covered spheres a bit smaller than a tennis ball. Elephants apparently eat palm nuts for the fruit surrounding them; the nuts and their hard casing are indigestible. Passing through an elephant helps the nuts to germinate. They are also used by local craftspersons, like ivory for netsuke (Japan) or scrimshaw (US and UK), to carve and dye. They are often fashioned into jewelry. There were Palm, Jackalberry (African ebony), Sausage-fruit, Leadwood, Rain, Marula, and Camel-thorn trees scattered about. Water in the Okavango River, which arises in Angola, takes months to traverse the Delta.

Walking across the islands was a bit like walking across a WWI battlefield in France after cease-fire. Aardvarks dig huge holes all over, eating the insects within. Blind mole-rats leave heaps of dirt from excavating their tunnels. And the termite mounds are 15-20 feet tall, with a spire at the top to which they retire with their queen when the lower levels flood. The spire also helps with temperature control. They look like bombed cathedrals.

No guns are allowed in the Delta, so our guide instructed us how to respond to various charges: an elephant or Cape Buffalo—run like hell and get behind, or better, up, a huge tree or massive termite mound (buffalo only—an elephant will smash the latter to smithereens). A lion charge: you are already dead so don’t hasten it by running or turning your back.  [Since I’d hope to be running away from, not toward, the lion, that seems redundant to me.]  Stand still with your hands, palms up, in an attitude of “I have no money. See?” They may charge three times or so to see if you are aggressive or will turn into prey by running. Then they may go and lie down nearby. Walk slowly backwards, facing them. Change your trousers later. In every other game park we’ve been to the walks are all accompanied by a guard with a semi-automatic rifle. And I don’t believe it is simply an attempt at full-employment by creating another unnecessary position. Many government jobs Malawi and Mozambique seem that way to me. Three people sitting around an office, chewing the fat. One of them wields a stamp which he uses with a muscular, definitive flourish when someone passes him their passport. The others look on, chewing.  He sits down again. It’s not like he needs a rest from his exertions.

After returning to Boro, which resembled the bustle of a bus station in a large, developing-world city with many mokoros, polers, and whites milling about, we jumped on a tiny aluminum skiff with a 90 hp Mercury on the back and a teen-aged driver for a rocket-ride back to Maun. We were going 40mph, at least, and the channel is remarkably serpentine and disguised. It was a rush and I was prepared to leap straight up and off, if and when we hit ground and stopped abruptly.

Before the above mokoro trip, emulating the simple life of San fishermen (Ha!), we went into Wilderness Safaris in Maun. They are a fabulous organization, with affiliated resorts all over Botswana and Namibia, and strive to engage and help their communities, preserve the environment, and bring in foreign dollars. They are doing just that, it seems, and we booked two nights at a posh lodge, Chitabe Lediba, in the Delta. We knew we’d enjoy it after the mokoro camping, especially.

We have now flown deeper into the Delta in a Cessna Caravan to a lovely 5 chalet resort. Sitting in our chalet, Linda whispered to me, “Come out and you don’t need your binoculars.” Twenty feet away, next to the walkway between our chalet and the lodge is a mother elephant and her baby, eating the brush. This place is crazy with animals! As our little plane landed at the resort’s airstrip, a giraffe was standing at the verge and an ostrich dashed across the far end, pursued by some sort of feline. On our 9 km drive to the lodge, we saw several herds of Burchell’s Zebra, herds of kudu and impala, an elephant, a Lilac-breasted Roller in flight, more giraffe, and a Bateleur Eagle.  Lots of promise.]

As we arrived at the lodge after a brief flight and a brief game-drive, the staff were singing and clapping in beautiful welcoming harmony to greet us. A brief orientation was followed by a fabulous brunch; the manager ate with us, explaining the routine. Up at 5:30 AM for a quick breakfast then an early game drive until 11AM followed by brunch and a rest. High tea at 3:30 with a 3 hour game drive from 4-7, then supper. While we’d like to stay for a month, we’ll be blimps at this rate. I am going to enquire, with serious intent, about kayaking the length of the Delta. It is done and there are guides to assist and one or two support boats to carry baggage, fatigued paddlers, and old men who have o’errun their abilities.

Our first evening game-drive was stunning. We watched and followed a leopard at close distance as she climbed a termite mound to observe a group of Tsessebe antelope about 500 yards away. Her camouflage made her almost invisible unless she was moving. After a bit we continued and, only the highlights here, saw a dead zebra under a tree with a huge female lion and two cubs gnawing on her innards. Another large female was lying on her back while two more cubs suckled and another two cubs wrestled. After ½ hour, the first lioness left her feast and lay on her back and the suckling cubs switched spigots. We were 40 feet away, mesmerized. On our return to the lodge in the dark we saw a Serval Cat, slinking about.

Supper was another glorious feed—free wine, beer, g&t, whatever—and we hit the sack. The latter turned out to be half the size of a football field with a soft, warm, light duvet and probably 800 thread-count sheets. Much of the night I’d awaken briefly to find Linda gone. I thought she couldn’t sleep and was in the other room, reading. Ha! She was fast asleep on the other side of the bed, it was so large. At about 2AM I heard a strange gurgling sound and imagined she was up, drinking from her bottle. Nope, she was still asleep until I woke her. Then we heard all manner of sounds of movement, brush crashing, etc. Thinking we were about to be eaten and the gurgling was a hungry predator’s empty stomach, we awaited our fate. After 10 minutes, I realized that whatever it was out there, if it were a carnivore we’d already be quietly killed and eaten so we relaxed and imagined it was the elephant pair from the day before, munching some tasty brush.

Awake at 5:30 for the AM game drive, it was another stunner. A mother and baby white rhino, immense, wandered by. Many magnificent birds. Elephants, solitary bulls and groups of mothers with calves, were everywhere. Giraffes aplenty. Back to the zebra kill to find the same cast of characters but little zebra left. It had been the size of a quarter horse and the lions were clearly intoxicated by the protein load, ripping at meat before collapsing to sleep. The cubs were cute, if a bit morbid, playing with the carcass which now consisted of the empty skin and a huge rib cage, plus head and extremities. The vultures patiently awaited their turn. We watched with a perfect view for an hour or more. On our continued drive to the lodge after 4 hours, we rounded a copse of trees and there were long tables set for 15 (two safari vehicles plus some staff), a singing, clapping welcome, and Compari with orange juice as a start. Then all manner of fresh-baked focaccia, braii steak, bacon, sausage, 3 salads, eggs, fresh fruit, etc. As we were being served, across the small lagoon where we perched trooped a group of 7 mother/baby elephant pairs. They drank and a couple of bulls nearby gave themselves dust baths, as if on cue. Brunch was accompanied by a constant stream of elephants traipsing by and glorious birdsong from the adjacent Jackalberry trees which were busy with Burchell’s starlings, filling themselves and the air.

If I come to Africa again and book a lodge, it will definitely be through Wilderness Safaris.  (We did get the local, not international rate, since we’ve been living in Malawi, which was helpful.) A Cape Town resident at the lodge has been to a number of their sites and says they are always different, always of excellent quality, and always contain a surprise or two. Once their al fresco meal was set at the base of a huge termite mound. A nearby mound had been vacated by the termites and a bit of spadework turned it into a pizza oven, from which were drawn 4 varieties of excellent pizza.

Tonight we’ll drop by the Wild Dog den where they are raising their puppies. Another visiting family here saw them kill and eat a small warthog, about which they had very mixed feelings. It is awful to watch something be killed, but mesmerizing, as well. I’d be happy just to see them frolic.

I would think that dropping a bunch of money for three days and two nights, including flying in and out, would not seem worth it. But the animals we’ve seen makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience and well worth it. My Resettlement Allowance from Peace Corps will pay for the trip and then some and I have no real resettlement costs. What an opportunity!

I’ll conclude with just highlights. Watching the Wild Dogs, an endangered species, hunt was amazing. They fan out and while we didn’t see them get the kill, they apparently are very efficient and run in relay fashion so as to wear out the poor antelope. We saw them again the next evening but their bellies were still full and they mostly just lay around and listened with their huge ears. On a morning drive, out of the mist we began to see Cape Buffalo—-more and more until a herd of 300+ emerged. Back to watch the two lionesses and 6 cubs, who had left only skin and bones of the zebra. Then we watched a leopard who was 20’ up a Jackalberry tree, stretched out over two branches, tail and one leg drooping down. She was disguised by the leaves and awaited an unsuspecting Impala to graze  on the berries underneath, whereupon she’d drop from the heavens and have supper.

Today we went for a game walk instead of a drive.  The guide had to drive to the other side of the lodge to get us, since 5 elephants, including a tiny baby, were browsing all over the parking area. As we readied to leave, a jackal raced down the boardwalk past us.  Our guide had a large-bore bolt action rifle, which was reassuring, as when we got down from the safari vehicle, a loud lion roar greeted us. If you encounter a deserted termite mound—one of those where weather has opened up the tunnels—and it is clean all around, beware: snake within.  Other animals use them for burrows, as well, including mongeese. We saw a 3+ foot Monitor Lizard on a tree branch, almost invisible. On our final drive back to the lodge, we stopped by a giraffe carcass. It had fallen yesterday while crossing a marsh with other giraffes, couldn’t get up, and drowned. Staff pulled it out of the water with a truck and a pride of 9 lions did the rest. Most of it was gone when we arrived. Six of the lions were resting in the shade at the side of our dirt track, one lying fast asleep in one of the tracks. We left the track, pulled up 20 feet from them, and sat with the engine off. After I sneezed loudly, a huge young male began to scrutinize us, me in particular, with his immense amber eyes. I avoided eye contact, and held motionless, wondering if he had been instructed that you don’t attack scale-less, claw-less, fur-less humanoids in Land Rovers. After 15 minutes or so he went back to gazing off into the distance with that intoxicated-on-fresh-giraffe-meat look. We began to breath again. Three of the females were guarding the carcass from the huge, hooded vultures that hovered near, wanting their share.

These 4 days have provided such a rich exposure to Nature in her most primitive, all creatures either looking for protein or looking to avoid becoming someone else’s supper, all breeding and caring for their young in between the above searches. And done so sustainably (100% solar electric, etc.), thoughtfully (They hire professional teams to survey their water table, their predator count, the Wild Dogs, etc. every few years.), and fairly (Good salaries, profit-sharing for all employees, etc.), Wilderness Safaris is an organization to support and use. We fly out in 2 hours and head to Nxai Pan tomorrow on our way to Chobe, Victoria Falls (Zambia, this time.), Lusaka, and Malawi.

PS We had to chase a giraffe and 6 kudu off the runway so the plane could land!


Fish River Canyon, Namibia

5 August 2018

[Above photo:   The canyon from its rim.]

As we were driving on the dusty gravel road from Ai-Ais, the southern end of the Fish River Canyon, to Hobas at the northern end, a familiar Land Cruiser approached, flashing its lights. It was, of course, Peter and Caroline. We chatted and Peter described how Caroline had suggested they put their cooler in the car at their last camping spot. Peter said, “I have difficulty getting into the cooler. I can’t imagine a baboon could.” Could and did, eating all their cheese and butter and other foodstuffs. “Caroline’s not speaking to me.”, which she denied. Laughter all around.

On arriving at Hobas we drove and walked to the viewpoint at which through-hikers descend to the canyon’s floor for the 5 day walk. No one else is allowed to hike down within the Park, even for the day. Temperatures exceed 120 degree in summer and are often below freezing at night in winter. The view was fine, a tortured course of very deep cuts; it is allegedly the second largest canyon system in the world, after the Grand Canyon. The descent, we could see, was a challenge; chains on stanchions accompanied the steep rock steps as far as the eye could see. We congratulated ourselves that we’d been circumspect about backpacking it.

Our next step was to get to Fish River Lodge, which we realized was not next to Hobas, as it appeared on the map. It was if you were a crow. Perched on the edge of the opposite side of the canyon, we could just make out a row of dots—the chalets—blending into their surroundings. Four hours of washboard roads later we pulled in. The main lodge concealed the view, which appeared dramatically after walking through the entrance. It was sunset and guests were gathered on one of several balconies, sipping wine and watching the colors change from brown to red to purple to black as night fell. It was the reverse of watching a print develop in a darkroom—the canyon vanished.

The food was super and the chalets elegant, each starkly modern and minimalist, built of slate, and on its own perch over the canyon. Both indoor and outdoor showers! We immediately signed up for a third night. The next day we hiked the rim going north, about 9 miles total.  Inspired, we hired a guide on day two and descended into the canyon (ropes, not chains, on stanchions anchored to the rock). There were tricky parts and the “trail” vanished at times, but it was spectacular, the temperature just right, and the guide, Desi, was a Himba from Damaraland who had a raft of tales to tell about people demanding to climb down but not being prepared for it. One poor fellow fell and fractured ribs, an arm in two places, and his leg; Desi had to carry him to the top. It recalled “Into Thin Air” and those who think money will propel them up Everest.

We’d seen 4 young Brazilians as they came up and over the rim the previous day, looking exhausted. So we naturally were apprehensive—I’m a month short of 78! But, happily, we zipped down and up and both felt so fine that we walked the rim another 4 miles in the afternoon. I guess all this hiking, and Linda’s running, helps.

We tried and tried to get into the Kgaligadi Transfrontier Park, a merger of two large adjacent parks in S. Africa and Botswana, set in the Kalahari. No luck, so we decided to go to Windhoek, Namibia’s capitol. It was a hefty distance and we stopped for the night in Rehoboth, a little town with 70 churches where the Basters, as they call themselves, landed after an arduous trek from S. Africa in 1868. The offspring of indigenous women and Dutch settlers, many of which couples married, they were shunned as “bastards” and not allowed to own land. Instead of simply descending into depression and drink, they moved to and settled Rehoboth. We stayed at the Ochsenwagen Hotel, owned and run by Basters, a very simple place.  The mushroom sauce on my lamb chops looked congealed (tasted fine) and it took 30 minutes to get two glasses of wine; we suspected they went to a bottle shop and bought it, their inventory and number of clientele being very constrained. They were very sweet and we were glad we’d stopped for the night. The setting was quite a contrast with our prior aesthetic and luxurious experience in the Fish River Canyon. We walked around town and before leaving in the morning we visited the museum. Our “guide” was a woman who had worked there for 32 years, she told us. She talked constantly and although it made looking at the exhibits difficult, we learned a lot about her and her relatives and the Basters in general. She still lives with her elderly parents, describing herself as “a bit complicated”. She is stubborn, says what comes into her head without concern for the consequences, and won’t marry because she doesn’t want to be “punched around” and forced to “have babies”. I wondered what a good psychoanalysis might do for her: not much, I fear. Besides, there isn’t an analyst in the country.

Did I mention how Linda has a genius for organization and packing? Well, she picks good spots to stay, as well. As we entered Windhoek, looking for a lodge, she spotted one from the Bradt Guide to our left, on a quiet side street: Cori’s Hotel, a B&B. With ten foot tall purple walls and a lavender gate, it was hard to miss. Rini, who owns and runs it, wears purple. The placemats in the breakfast room are purple, as are the fake flowers on each table. As to the furnishings, they are chosen for durability and ease of cleaning—all floors are very cold grey tile, the tables are steel and glass, the chairs steel. But…it is a short walk to downtown and we’ve had a good time exploring this little city. We had a long walk to supper last night at Joe’s Beer Hall. Not exactly an inviting name to me, but it had great reviews and lived up to it. Good craft beer and strong on the meat. It apparently seats 400 but in many little thatched rondevals, eight people seated on benches around a table. We were sort of alone, as two couples chatted away in Afrikaans and the pair of guys to our left, Chinese, ate their immense pork knuckles and sauerkraut in silence and left. I had a chance to compare medallions of—I know, but we do eat beef, pork, lamb, fish, crab, etc.—Kudu, Springbok, and Oryx, grilled to perfection. The latter two are superior, to my palette, to the former. With a pint of a good IPA, I was sated. Since it was dark and it isn’t wise to walk about in the dark here, we hopped a cab and happily returned to our home for the night.

There is, I should note, a really wonderful central crafts market in Windhoek which we visited twice. It is filled with beautiful, whimsical, and ingenious creations. It gives me hope for our future to see this side of the human endeavor, contrasted with DT’s proposed $100 billion tax break for the rich. It has been demonstrated, time and again, that giving the rich more money doesn’t float the little skiff in which the working stiff is trying to keep afloat. (Block that metaphor!)

We’re off toward Maun this morning, the center of all Okavango Delta activity-planning. But first we’ll stop halfway, camping in the Kalahari, and see if we can get a ride into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the second largest such in the world. They do know how to do environmental protection in Namibia and Botswana, with strong governmental vision and leadership. It makes me weep for Malawi.

  1. Chimwemwe, our gardener, is slowly coming out of coma, we hear.


Sossusvlei and the Great Sand Sea

29 July 2018

[Above photo: It’s difficult to surpass natural beauty. This is shot from the top of Dune 45 near Sesriem in the Namib-Naukluft Park in central Namibia.]

With our flexible scheduling, never knowing where we’ll want to be in two days and, thus, never making reservations, we sometimes have to adapt. In Sesriem, we camped in the “overflow”, as all campsites in the park were booked. This was next to the main road into the camp in a dusty flat area under a tree. But somehow we settled in and, after borrowing a bench from the next camping spot, we stayed put for two nights, happily. We could easily have camped or stayed in a chalet outside the gates but being within allowed us an hour earlier start on our drive to the immense red (ferric oxide) powdery sand dunes the next morning. And an extra hour after sunset, as well.

As we cruised around the first evening after erecting our tent, we could see the sun setting on the tops of the stunning dunes. They are tall. “Big Daddy” is over 100 meters. We climbed it in the morning just before sunrise, along with the hoards of other unwashed. It felt like my version of circling the Kabbah in Mecca.  The lines from Handel’s Messiah kept running through my mind as I followed, and led, so many others to the top: “Oh we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Still, it was so magnificent, struggling up in our bare feet in the cold, soft sand and knowing that everyone else was having their own aesthetic, if not spiritual, moment.

The colors and curves and lines, let alone the size of the dunes, are entrancing. It is no wonder that photos of them grace any publication about Namibia. Uncharacteristically, my bowels seized up on the way down and, as there was no one in view I relieved them quickly. It felt like soiling the Vatican, but in that dry climate all will be reduced to dust in a couple of days. And probably provide some nutrition for the beetles that dash about.  It is amazing how one animal can extract nutrition from another’s leavings. Since elephants aren’t ruminants, their food is barely digested and, although expelled in great volume, has no discernable smell.  They ruin woodlands because they must eat so much each day.

Our last evening was graced by a visit from an Oryx (Gemsbok), those of the 4 foot long sharp and straight horns. He paused across the road, staring at me. Of course, I anthropomorphized the meaning of his visit, feeling he wanted some human companionship with those soulful eyes. I was tempted to, but didn’t, walk over and pat him. It turns out he is a regular at the campground, going through the garbage bins. How the beautiful and noble have fallen! I clapped my hands and shouted him away, disillusioned in this most striking of beasts who has no apparent need to drink water, urinating in dry pellets. Oryx can survive the most extreme conditions of drought and heat; they have special vasculature in their nose so if they breath rapidly they can cool the blood going to their brain. Their bodies can be up to 6 degrees hotter than their cerebral circulation. Otherwise, they couldn’t think straight.

Our next stop was to be on a working ranch in the most beautiful dunescape. We were really out in the bush (minus any bushes) as we pulled up to the 12 km entrance road to find it locked with an accompanying sign saying: “We are sorry but we cannot accept anyone who hasn’t pre-booked.” Our system of not making reservations was breaking down but we drove another 40 km or so and found the most lovely campsite you can imagine, tucked up into a rocky hillside. We were the only campers. A woman who lives across the main road in an oasis of flowers and trees owns the property. She and her husband couldn’t make a go of cattle ranching, so they built some attractive rooms and two perfect campsites on their property. Her husband died 4 years ago and she manages it. With total privacy and shaded by pepper trees, the campsite was 75 feet above the valley floor with wonderful views of the surrounding terrain which was filled with termite mounds and, beyond, orange mountains.

We next drove to Luderitz, a small port city and commercial fishing town. The Orange River, further south, forms Namibia’s southern border with South Africa. It arises in Lesotho, thousands of km to the east in S. Africa, and passes by Kimberly, from where it has washed millions of carats of diamonds down to the river mouth. Over time, the Benguela Current, a cold ‘un, which runs north along the coast, swept many diamonds north, offshore of Luderitz. There has been an active seafloor diamond mining industry in Luderitz since the 1990’s.  The town itself is quaint, with numerous buildings and homes from a century ago, built by Germans drawn here for guano mining, fishing, and the land-found diamonds. Imagine picking up handfuls of diamonds from the ground. Poor Luderitz himself prospected unsuccessfully for copper for years, no doubt walking all over the diamonds strewn about. Died a poor man. Poor man!

When we arrived at Luderitz, we tried, unsuccessfully, to get a room in two guest houses we’d chosen. So, back to the tent! Always a handy option. If travelling in foreign lands, carry a tent. Our campground was called Shark Island. Not an island and nary a shark, it is the tip of a peninsula forming the protection for Luderitz Bay, across the water from town. It is just down the road from the guest houses. The campsite was run-down and the night “guard” was drunk, but the setting was insanely beautiful, especially after the desert. We decided to braii one night. Linda had visions of eating steamed mussels and grilled fish and drinking chilled white wine, sitting on the breakwater, watching the sun set and the full moon rise simultaneously. (Little did we know it was the occasion of the most complete eclipse of the moon for a century. Also the occasion for a “blood moon”.) The braii wood was impossible to start, the wind was howling—-oh, there was no seafood in the supermarket and the fish market was already closed—, and we noticed the moon risen half an hour after the fact, so engrossed and asphyxiated were we trying to get the fire up. We grilled the chicken and ate it, and salad, standing up. Then went to bed. Still, the chicken was good and even though my masculine ego took a blow when Linda had to reconstruct my fire so it would actually start—“I start fires with wet wood in Maine every night during the winter, so don’t feel bad.”—, we did eat, no one got burned, and we had some laughs about it. I mean, I can start a fire in the rain while camping in the Northwest—but then, we have cedar which practically ignites itself.

Near Luderitz was a fabulous ghost town, Kolmanskop, the remains of the diamond boom. Deserted since 1959, the big fancy homes are filled with sand, It sported its own ice manufactory and tiny steam railroad to deliver the ice daily to each house, etc. And a 250 bed hospital tended by German physicians, one of whom had each patient drink a glass of red wine every morning. The works of Man are transient, and the town is being swallowed by the desert. There was a miniversion of this on a forlorn, moonscape of a peninsula nearby, Dias Point, where an elderly woman ran a small restaurant and places to sleep: campsites, two beached fishing boats, propped up, with ladders and berths, and several small cottages, all now reverting to sand with the neglect of their absent (Dead? Retired?) caretaker.

Next we drove to the bottom of the Fish River Canyon, to Ai-Ais.  After nine nights in a tent, we got a bungalow with a kitchen and enjoyed every minute. We hiked 6km into the canyon, pestered by little flies, and decided we are glad we didn’t try to do the 5 day backpacking trip the length of it. We were surprisingly tired after the hike up and down the canyon, even though it wasn’t far or steep. It was sand, and that can be difficult slogging. I’d rather go down the Grand Canyon again, as lovely as this is.

We went to the outdoor pool early one morning to watch the sunrise. The pool is very warm, heated by natural hot springs. I stuck my toe in to test the waters and lost my balance, falling in. Only Linda and one swimmer saw me and my cellphone was back at the bungalow so I simply wrung out my sweatshirt and t-shirt and went for a swim.  Make the best of your situation, I say.

Linda read about the Fish River Lodge in our Bradt Guide (superb for Namibia) and it sounded so enticing that I called and secured us two nights. Besides, we are getting used to beds, not worrying about hyenas or baboons, and not having to walk half a km to the ablution block at 2AM.  And the lodge appears to be right next to Hobas, the north end of Fish River Canyon, whose viewpoints we planned to visit the next day.

I should note we’ve met our friends, Peter and Caroline, twice more. They saw our red car at Shark Island in Luderitz where they camped against the toilet so as to have a windbreak the night before. We had a glass of wine together and went out to supper to a cozy place with a fire.

More of the other (fourth) meeting in next week’s post. What did Caroline say to Peter? How did Peter respond? Were baboons involved? Hold on to your seats.

PS Linda received a very sad WhatsApp from our landlady in Blantyre, noting that our wonderful, creative, and hard-working gardener/guard/artist, Chimwemwe, had been struck by an automobile and was in coma at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. There is little we can do from here and it is so awful; he is a wonderful man and father of two young children. If he is alive when I return I’ll see him and offer some financial help.


Twyfelfontein and the Skeleton Coast

22 July 2018

[Above photo:  Linda making breakfast at Mondjilo, on our way to the Waterberg Plateau.]

“Twyfelfontein” means “Doubtful Spring”. We have been in very arid conditions (less than 100mm of rain per year, about 4 Twyfelfontein inches. Seattle gets around 40-45 inches per year) since leaving the Zambezi Region (Caprivi Strip). We came to Twyfelfontein to see the petroglyphs, up to 6000 year old stone engravings of animals, waterholes, and human hand- or foot-prints.   Some of the figures are fantastic, half lion-half man or other creations, which were felt to be created by their shaman when in a trance.  The area is rich with them. Engravings, unlike paintings, are found on exposed surfaces, not in caves or under ledges.  These are from early hunter-gatherers (Bushmen or San people) who moved in small, leaderless groups around the area.

In contrast with the petroglyphs were the ruins of a mudbrick cottage built in 1939 by a German Jew, Levin, who farmed sheep here with his wife and five children. They had fled Nazi Germany in 1939 for this German colony (Independence for Namibia was in 1990.) and then, I assume, fled into the wilderness to avoid persecution by the colonial authorities. They farmed for 12 years. When they realized that the war was over and that they spent much more time away from than at home as nomadic pastoralists, seeking feed for their sheep,  they gave it up. They headed to Windhoek and, literally, greener pastures. Anyway, evidence of their habitation has tumbled down in 50+ years and will vanish in another 50, whereas the San endure in their rock art.
We also visited a Living Village of the Damara people, another group of hunter-gatherers turned pastoralists and, later, farmers. It was a reconstruction, with Damara people in skins and beads, of daily life in a small village. It wasn’t hokey, as I’d feared, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, especially watching the men start a fire and the women make ostrich shell buttons.  So many bare breasts I began to wonder why we fetishize those of our women.

Then came the huge transition from 4 inches of rain per year to less than one inch per year as we drove west through the Namib Desert to the coast. The desert runs the length of Namibia and all of the coastline is a protected area, save a few towns, villages, lodges, and campsites. As we descended gradually from 2500 feet to sea level the vegetation disappeared, along with any sign of habitation, save a Springbok who ran across the road in front of our car and a single giraffe in the distance. Finally, we were in a land of gravel flats and sand dunes with the rare succulent.

When we entered the Skeleton Coast Park gate, the wind was blowing so hard it pushed us around, made opening the car doors dangerous, and had shredded the two flags flying so that about only a ragged 1/2 of each remained. The park ranger who took our fees looked dispirited from living in such an outpost, confirming that it had been this windy “for weeks”. At least 30 knots, double reefed with a handkerchief for a jib, if sailing. The coast was shrouded in fog and we turned north, driving to the northernmost point possible, Terrace Bay. As Linda pointed out, it was her vision of the Aleutians. Large metal sheds, no shrubs or greenery save two palm trees strangely out of place, and cold, foggy, and damp.  Our cottage, however, was cute and functional, right on the beach and with a fridge for our cold packs. And the restaurant had exquisite meals, for some strange reason. A fabulous butternut squash soup, a delicious sauce for the mussels, and fresh-caught Kingclip (a white fish) cooked to perfection, as were the veges. We were hungry, as well.

Walking on the beach in Terrace Bay recalled the age of the round, storm-smoothed stones and the immutability of the landscape. The beach was littered with bones, immense whale heads and pelvises, other mammal bones, and countless shells of a variety of crustaceans. With the dunes behind us, we watched a few locals surf-cast, one pulling in a lovely 5-7 pound fish of some variety. The next day, as we drove south on the coast, we stopped at a shipwreck to see those bones and at an abandoned oil rig to photograph “coastal lace”, huge plates of thick steel decayed by the salt air. A ghostly fog swirled around everything, transforming it from a moonscape to a dystopian fantasy.  [A Mad Max-type action film that won all the Academy Awards a few years back was filmed in this desert, an ideal setting for depicting the end of the world.]  And yet, small numbers of large mammals such as lions, elephants, rhinos, jackals, hyenas, and a variety of antelope manage to survive here, often around the “ephemeral rivers” as they are called. Arising in the interior of Namibia and flowing toward the coast, they vanish, reappear, and vanish again, often with no through-flow at all except in a rare flood year.

Any potential human habitation here is on the map. We anticipated going to an ATM and getting gas and groceries in Torra Bay, just below Terrace Bay. However, Torra Bay is a fishing camp, a series of ablution blocks, camping pitches, and a bar/restaurant which is open only in December and January each year. Everything was locked up. Cormorants and an occasional Pied Crow rested on the water towers; two jackals sniffed hopefully around underneath, hoping that one of the birds would forget the dangers lurking beneath them and attempt an earth landing.

After driving down the coast, we settled into a lodge at Cape Cross with a balcony overlooking the endless sand beach and the ocean. The cold and wind and relative bleakness of the camping pitches encouraged a retreat to more comfortable circumstances. Cape Cross was “discovered” by a Portuguese explorer in 1486; he placed a stone cross, inscribed with a tribute to his king, on the headland. The Germans removed it and it now rests in a museum in Berlin. There is a replica at the Cape.

Cape Cross is the site of a massive (>100,000) Cape Fur Seal colony. The bulls don’t come ashore to fight and procreate until October, so it is populated with many, many females and pups. The latter squawk, nurse, and frolic in the water near shore. Their mothers mainly sunbathe, recalling days on the beach in S. California. Their smell is fiercely pungent. What we realized only later, as we walked away, is that a lot of the smell is from the rotting bodies of crushed pups. Apparently the fathers, distracted and neglectful, roll over on the little ones. The beach is littered with small skulls, skins, rib cages, etc. Grisly as nature gets, I think.

We’re now at a very nice campground in Swacopmund, where tonight will be our 4th. The Tiger Reef campground is on a point where the Swacop River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The beaches are beautifully sandy, the surf has 3-5 breaks so is wonderfully soothing all night long, and the water is as frigid as Penobscot Bay in Maine (59◦). We’re enjoying this little resort town with good restaurants, lovely walks (We walk 5-7miles per day; Linda runs an additional 3 miles.), and a nearly-empty campground with privacy and all the amenities (Wi-Fi, hot water, braii pit, and electrical outlets; life has gotten fairly simple). We walk through a slit in the fence and are on the beach. There is a brackish pool, the only liquid trace of the Swacop River, near our campsite. One evening I counted nine Greater Flamingoes, a Grey Heron, a White Pelican, a Western Great Egret, and a gathering of Kelp Gulls and some sort of tern in the pool. Behind our campsite is a weaver’s nest with a pair inhabiting it. A flock of more than 50 Helmeted Guinea Fowl prance carelessly about the Swacopmund waterfront park.

I had the screw removed from our tire; it took 20 minutes start to finish and on the repaired tire we drove to Walvis Bay yesterday. On the way the views were stunning, with huge golden sand dunes to the left, blue and white breakers on the right.  Walvis Bay is the major deep-water port on the west coast of Africa below Angola and though it sits in the middle of Namibia’s coast, the British in South Africa seized it and didn’t turn it over to Namibia until 4 years after Namibian independence.  There is an immense lagoon and it is populated with tens of thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingos.  We walked and drove for miles, exploring the dunes and salt ponds, spotting birds. Lunch on the waterfront was special, with fresh oysters and mussels, as well as catch-of-the-day cooked to perfection.

Tomorrow we’ll leave early for Sossusvlei, the massive and intensely-colored sand-dunes that are emblematic of Namibia. It is in the middle of the Great Sand Sea. (“Now, don’t track any of that into the tent”.)

DT’s performance with Vlad was extraordinary, even for him. Then his back-pedaling—“I meant to say ‘No’ when I said “Yes”. It is amazing to me, given all the spooks and covert practices in our many intelligence agencies, that he hasn’t been stopped or muzzled. It is much better for us, however, that this play itself out so that the ultra-right doesn’t have a martyr and some can see the gross error of their ways. He that glitters (“Fools gold”, we used to call it when panning in the Sierras.) and makes manifold promises cannot be counted on for better health care, a better economy, more security, or a better job. (Might as well throw in a better marriage, as well. It’s no more fanciful!) If only he doesn’t get us into a nuclear war. Or sell Manhattan to the Chinese for $27.

Etosha and Beyond


[Above photo: Leo and his lass at leisure. What looks like smog in the distance is the Etosha Salt Pan]

We arrived at Etosha’s Namutoni Gate to find that all the camping spots were taken. And the cheap rooms. So we sprang for a chalet for two nights and unpacked. The waterhole at the camp was busy with —-birds. Clusters of Guinea Fowl. No mammals. But a lovely sunset. We spent two nights in Etosha and were stunned by the sere beauty of the park. It is dry, dry, dry. The salt pan, around which the game cluster at water holes, stretches 60km by 120km. Standing on the edge of the pan, it is like looking at the ocean without waves or water. You cannot see the other shore and it is flat without any plant growth. In some places it is green, suggesting copper sulfate or a saline-tolerant algae.  You aren’t supposed to get out of your car in Etosha except at the toilets and in the enclosed restaurant/camping/lodge areas. Why they think the lions won’t eat you in the toilets, I’m not sure. They are out in the wilds without fencing. Fastidious cats, perhaps.

The geography is amazing, flat grasslands, open woodlands, and the pan. It is Winter, so we weren’t hot during the day and, in the chalet, were comfortable at night. [Elsewhere it has been very cold some nights and one of us pulls up another blanket or opens a sleeping bag over us at 2AM. The tent isn’t very insulated!]  We saw small herds of Giraffe, Ostrich, Black-faced Impala, Gemsbok (Oryx), and Red Hartebeest and large herds of Blue Wildebeest, Springbok, and Zebra, occasional Elephants, Rhino, Black-backed Jackal, and Steenbok. A pride of 4 female and 2 male lions walked right by, terrifying a group of Springbok who fled the neighborhood. The lions settled down in the thick grass by a waterhole and slept in the sun. Lions apparently sleep or rest up to 23 hours/day if not on the hunt. The females do the hunting but the dominant male gets the first meal of the kill. Like the guy who flips the burgers in the backyard and takes credit for the meal, including the prep, salad, and desert. Later we saw two more lions snoozing by the roadside. If we had stayed longer in the park, we would have witnessed more, of course. People we talked with at our next camping spot [Mondjilo] had spent two hours watching 4 lions consume a kill, munching on the bones. Another couple had watched lions attack a rhino; it was over quickly, as the rhino ran off. It’s a little like attacking a Sherman tank. What’s the point? They probably couldn’t have bitten through the skin. We saw lots of interesting birds, as well, including numerous Kori Bustard.  After two days, we’d had enough of viewing animals. All of our visits to Malawi’s game parks have taken some of the urgency off our tallying game.

We, again, ran into our friends, Peter and Caroline, at Namutoni. They are staying in Etosha for 6 nights  with two couples, including Caroline’s sister, Alison. We all supped at the restaurant. I set my wine glass down on a crack between two tables supposedly pushed together. The crevice was hidden by a table cloth. Red wine all over the table. I turned to Alison on my right, assuming she’d dumped her wine over and then had to apologize. Linda laughed at a familiar scene. I bang my head at times. At the first party at her home in Bar Harbor when I was just getting to know her, I clumsily tipped over a bottle of wine. Anyway, the Eland fillet was superb, my favorite after Warthog.

Now we are at the Waterberg Plateau National Park, camping in the public campground. It is nestled under the red vertical cliffs of the plateau. There are also fancy chalets up the hill and a classy restaurant in the old police station; the single prison cell has been turned into a wine cellar. The swimming pool up the hill had a family of Warthogs grazing by it, unafraid of us. A huge and very unique safari bus/truck just pulled into the camping spot next to ours, disgorging 6 French nationals, 3 Namibian staff, and a mountain of wall tents, tables and chairs, etc. Quite the way to see the countryside. A shout from one of them in the middle of the night caused us to wonder if it was the result of a nightmare (“cauchmere”) or an orgasm. Quite different experiences!

We are minimalists in our little X-Trail with our “Two Person Solitude” (a little ironic) dome tent. Linda is painting on used teabags—her miniatures are a marvelous record of our voyage—and I’m pecking away at my laptop, sitting in a hammock and as content as I can be.  Although I’m getting hungry, so I’ll pause here.

Back the next day. We hiked to the top of the plateau yesterday and while savoring the view Linda noted a snake crawling around a nearby rock face. Later, as we sat on an adjacent rock enjoying the view, a group of Germans shouted to us that a snake was coming to visit. Indeed, and I banged my hiking pole on a rock in front of it and it changed direction, climbing a small tree. Fellow campers from Mainz had a snake book and 10yo Ella pointed out that it was a mamba. At last! There is wildlife all over here. Yesterday as we sat on the restaurant terrace 11 Striped Mongeese entered stage-right and began digging in the tidy lawn 10 feet from us, looking for insects. After awhile, they all walked to an open tiled drainage and curled up in a big heap, enjoying the warmth of the tiles, I suppose. We regularly have a Warthog or two in our campground and Damara Dik-diks, Africa’s smallest antelope (think fox terrier size with huge dewy eyes), prance through each morning and evening. Today took the cake, however. Linda had just finished making wonderful salami and cheese sandwiches and wrapped them in aluminum foil for our hike when I heard her yell. Turning I saw nothing at first, then a large black hand reached up over the edge of the braii top and snatched the foil packet. The baboon had the effrontery to go 20 feet away where I could see her and scarf it all down! I have photo documentation. Soon we heard a shout from another campground and a troop of 15 baboons —the Huns and the Vandals—loped by, one with obvious foodstuffs in its chops.

Namibia is, as we’d heard, easy in which to travel. Main roads are smooth and well-marked. Campgrounds are plentiful, cheap, and well-kept. Small towns (the largest is Windhoek, the capital, at <400,000) look prosperous and middle-class. Yet there is 40% unemployment, expected life span has sunk from 60yo to 51yo in the past 25 years, and HIV/AIDS is responsible for 1/3 of the deaths (I don’t have the most recent figures, as I don’t have internet access.). Apparently a lot has been put into services and infrastructure, including health care and rural electrification, in recent years. There has been very profitable mining and reputedly the most modern cement factory in the world is here. Namibia is a large (larger than France and England combined) yet very sparsely populated country with  2.5 million residents. The birth rate is 1.4% and falling. If only Malawi could boast the same.

Our standard room is modest in proportions, modern in design and sparsely furnished. It doesn’t have AC but is very well ventilated. A bit like a ship, it has pockets and small hammocks for things like books and eyeglasses. There is a vestibule on each side in which we keep hot tea with milk in a thermos and two cups so before we rise at dawn we can have a cuppa in bed.  Our sleeping arrangement is: two Thermarest matrasses side by side (one was punctured by an acacia thorn last night and deflated), a two inch foam pad over them, a thick wool blanket over that, sheets, pillows, and more covers on top. Two wool blankets are standard but it is getting cold and will get colder as we approach the ocean and the  Namib Desert.   We have an additional two acrylic blankets and two sleeping bags unzipped so we should be warm. Oh, and fleece pants and tops, socks if needed, gloves and watch caps for real cold. The warmth and companionship of the bed does discourage me from going out in the cold, with who knows what wild animals about, at 2AM, so I suffer a little, snooze a little, dream of swimming pools and waterfalls, and, finally, rouse myself for the inevitable.

I know that when I travelled in 1972, after two months  I felt a bit useless, like walking through a fascinating museum/zoo for too long. Working hard in Blantyre for two years makes this feel earned and, thus, not so frivolous. Yet I cannot help but think about the tiny fraction of Malawians who have ever been able to afford a visit to one of their splendid game parks. I count my manifold blessings regularly.

Like discovering today why the right rear tire was at 18# pressure the day we left Malawi and why it again has fallen in the two weeks we’ve been gone. A screw is sticking into it. Since we’ve drive 4000km at least with it in there and over some horrendous roads, I’m betting it won’t get worse quickly. But we’ll have it fixed when we can. How very fortunate that it was a screw, not a nail. A pretty good self-sealing puncture, I’d say.

Mosi Oa Tunya—The Smoke That Thunders

8 July 2018

[Above photo: A typical view of Paradise]

David Livingstone, the missionary, visionary, and intrepid explorer who led the fight to end the East African slave trade, was coasting down the mighty Zambezi River in 1855 when he saw clouds of mist arising from the land ahead. Soon he heard a great roar. And quickly, we assume, he put ashore on what is now Livingstone Island, whose downstream end hovers on the verge of the 95 meter free-fall. His quest for a trade route up the Zambezi from the Indian Ocean into the heart of Southern Africa was dashed, but he had stumbled (floated nearly over) upon one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, which he named Victoria Falls after that chilly queen.

As we approached the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the river, we, too, saw the smoke rising. Three nights there were enough to sample the majesty of its thunder. Walking repeatedly back and forth the 1.2 km along the Zimbabwe side (There is an additional 0.5 km on the Zambian side which we hope to see on our return trip.), we were showered with water and stunned by rainbow after double rainbow with nary a cloud in the sky.  Viewing the Falls recalled some of the more abstract Turner’s in the Tate Museum in London, lovely, misty scenes with only a mast or some rigging to anchor the painting.  I didn’t do the ultralite flight over the Falls, saving our pennies for flights up the Skeleton Coast and over the Okavango Delta, as well as a certain mistrust of cloth airplanes with lawn mower engines.  Fully experiencing the Okavango may be difficult, as all the lodges are very high-end, fly-ins, which we won’t afford. Maybe we can hire a canoe to enter the delta and camp on an island. With a guide, of course! But we did have some good beer for once in a long time and ate local fare—crocodile rigatoni for me and warthog schnitzel for Linda. Croc was OK, just nothing special, certainly not repulsive.  Kind of like…   It feels relatively virtuous eating something phylogenetically inferior—or at least an older species. Certainly, crocs are not endangered and have no compunctions about eating us. So there! The warthog was superb—tender, tasty, not gamy, yum!  Ugly yet cute little vegetarians.

We bade farewell to Sarah and Chris who were off to visit a friend in Harare before returning to UK. They are both funny, kind, salt-of-the-earth people: flexible both in travel and friendship. We’ll miss their company. Now, however, we are spread out in the car and no one is cramped.

Which was a good thing, as the drive from Victoria Falls to Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi Region (formerly  called the Caprivi Strip after the German Chancellor, Count Georg Leo Von Caprivi, who never set foot in Namibia) was a bear. Two border crossings—each one requiring the country you are in allowing you to leave and the country you are entering allowing you to do so—from Zimbabwe to Zambia and from Zambia to Namibia took at least 2 ½ hours. Then 100km of the road was so bad that I believed we had somehow missed a turn and were on the “old road”. [The GPS, which I am just learning to use, showed us about 10km north of the M-10, running parallel to it. I think the map is poor and I need to load a new, improved one.]  The potholes were the size and half the depth of a bathtub and the edges of the tarmac, when there was tarmac, were jagged and dropping off to a shoulder a foot or more below.  There were many huge bulk freight trucks trying not to tip over as they crept through the obstacles. As we passed one small cluster of huts a man on a bicycle carrying a box of something on the back dashed out, passed us, and stayed ahead for a long time.  Linda was a trooper driving and was weary by day’s end.

Katima Mulilo had gasoline (Complete filling station outages are not uncommon, which is troubling since filling stations are uncommon outside of towns here. ), several supermarkets, and functional ATM’s. We found a Portuguese restaurant and had pizza, a large salad, and beer before bedding down on the banks of the Zambezi on the Protea Zambezi River Lodge campground. Pretty funny. Protea Hotels are the high-end in southern Africa, like Ritz-Carlton or, perhaps, Sheraton. But this one had lovely camping spots on the river, with an “ablution block” the envy of any. Ablution blocks, as you might guess, are where you wash your dishes, brush your teeth, shave, shower, and so forth. Linda spotted some immense, fresh hippo prints going down the bank 10 feet from our tent, which gave us pause.

Alert! Our good friends Caroline and Peter have just arrived at Popas Falls where we are now staying after their driving marathon, covering in one day what we did in two. Well, we aren’t pushing it and they have reservations for every night for three months so they have to get to Etosha National Park quickly. They’ll erect their tent and we’ll sup together in the nice restaurant. They are here for two nights; we’ll leave in the morning and head our separate ways, although we know their schedule and perhaps we’ll connect again on this trip.

In Popas Falls we have been staying at Shimbetu, a lovely lodge on the Okavango River about 20 km before it widens into the massive Delta. We saw two Laughing Doves, three Speckled Mousebirds, and a White-Browed Robinchat at the birdfeeder in our little camping area as we made breakfast this morning. Laughing Doves are gorgeous birds, as are many of the starling family, although we think of the latter primarily as pests from the UK.

All the talk of beer may worry you, my friends and family and other readers, that I’ve turned into a lush. It’s hot during the day so beer is fluid replacement. We don’t eat a lot of carbs, so it helps there. The bubbles are good for… Oh, well, I still get a buzz from a single beer so I don’t think I’m developing tolerance, just as a gauge to the extent of my drinking.  Carlsberg, which has been the only beer in Malawi by law for >50 years, has been having trouble with their standard brew, Green (“Give A Guy A Green” and “Probably the Best Beer in the World”). A French company recently acquired it and with them a new brewmeister, I assume. Anyway, some of it is so funky that it is undrinkable. To have a craft draft is a treat.

We did a self-directed game drive in Mahanga Game Reserve today and had a great time spotting kudu, bush bucks, a huge bull elephant, the ubiquitous impalas (Now there is a successful breeder. We should introduce them to Eastern Europe where the birth rate is so low!), a lone, majestic sable antelope, a herd of zebra, and myriad wonderful birds such as a Lilac-Breasted Roller, a Little Bee Eater, an Amur Falcon, Spur-winged Geese, and two dozen immense Lappet-Faced Vultures at the site of a kill, with more watching on from two trees. Curiously, there was a Sacred Ibis standing demurely on the kill, eating nothing but, I assume, helping the vultures with their table manners.  We clearly don’t see as much as if a trained guide were with us, but it is fun and less expensive to do our own, now that we have the hang of it. Linda spots about 5x more than I do; I think it’s about pattern recognition, discerning what isn’t a tree or a bush or a leaf but is really an animal. Why I don’t do better may be a function of less acute eyesight, as well.

Today we drove only about 2 ½ hours to Rundu, up against the border (the middle of the Okavango River) with Angola. Since I was driving, Linda read the guidebook and chose a rustic camping-only spot. It is paradise. The owner and his wife are campers and pharmacists in Rundu, buying this property in 1985. It is many acres along the Okavango River and the campsites are on lawn with shade trees, all the amenities, right over the river, and a tranquility we haven’t matched to date. There is wilderness across the river. No other campers are currently here—it is quite a long drive over a deserted floodplain to get here. We’ll take a two hour sunset cruise on the river to see the birdlife in about an hour. Then we’ll grill the marinated chicken Linda bought in town and retire for the night to our tent on the edge of the river. Maybe we’ll stay a few nights.

Scott Pruitt’s resignation is excellent news. All DT’s reversals and lies about N. Korea are going to make it difficult for Mike Pompeo to negotiate anything with Mr. Kim. Hilarious NY Times headers note that Pompeo thinks the talks are “very constructive” and the North Koreans think the Americans are “acting like gangsters.”  And a trade war with China? I’m no economist but tariffs are generally a very poor way to stimulate an economy, I believe. He’d have us be a small-minded, xenophobic, isolated banana republic in which his friends get all the bananas. Hm. Sounds a bit like North Korea. DT’s impulsive mis-steps are going to pitch the US economy into the tank, I’d guess. Well, he never promised not to hurt the most vulnerable, as if his promises actually have any weight.

This feels a bit superficial, for which I apologize. We are moving pretty fast and I want to record the sights, sounds, and locations. But perhaps I should give equal time to the subjective experience. Probably more interesting to you.

PS On a 2 hour river cruise last night we saw: a 3 foot monitor lizard, two crocs up close, two immature African Fish Eagles, a Black Crake, two African Jacanas, and an entire covey (6) of Black-Crowned Night Heron in a bush. We then drifted, engine off, down the Okavango as the sun gradually set over the Angola bush. So peaceful, it’s difficult believe Angola was colonized and then at civil war for so long.

Dreaming In South Luangwa, Zambia

30 June 2018

[Above photo:   A leopard listening for a meal 15 feet from us. We are being very quiet!]

It is 6:30AM and Linda and I are sitting on a deck cantilevered over the broad, muddy South Luangwa River. Actually, since the rainy season is past, we sit above a sandy expanse half the width of the river.  The S. Luangwa is the longest river in Zambia, running 1000km and emptying into the Zambezi.  It reputedly has the largest number of crocodiles and hippos of any river in Africa, which I believe.  The winter sun is rising and the day will be warm and lovely, although at the moment I wish I’d brought my fleece from our tent.

We’re at Croc Valley Camp, aptly named, a lodge stretched along perhaps 1 kilometer of  the river, just across from a similarly-named national park in Zambia (9050 square kilometers). When we arrived at 3PM yesterday and had a beer on another part of the very long deck, we counted 5 crocodiles basking on the riverbank, pods of hippos in the river and sunning on the sand, an African Fish Eagle, a Marabou Stork, a Sacred Ibis, and two Saddle-Beaked Storks.

Croc Valley is busily adding amenities. We stay in an Eco-Tent, a deal at $10/person per night. It is about 9 feet by 8 feet, has a covered porch with a picnic table, twin beds with clean sheets, and a small bookcase for our effects. The shared bathroom is in a separate building about 50 meters away. I get up twice at night, generally, especially after a beer or two. There is a sign saying, “Be careful, wild animals walk through the camp at night.” After my first trip out and back at 2AM I climbed into bed and heard, very nearby, a deep growling and another voice with a strange, guttural bark. Wild dogs (rare) or hyenas (common), I guessed, and shuddered before planning my second foray. When the time came, I stepped out onto the porch and, using my male prerogative, filled an empty water bottle.  Later, as the sky lightened, I walked to the bar/restaurant to get tea for us and had to avoid a darling little puku grazing on the path and Vervet Monkeys, large and small, at play.  Wild it is! The point of this paragraph was to note that one current building project is to put a bathroom at the back of each tent.

We drove here from Lilongwe yesterday, 4 crammed into our X-Trail which previously seemed large enough but is pretty small. Linda repacked the car so that it was like a Chinese puzzle, with our foam mattress rolled up on the floor of the back seat. Chris and Sarah’s two duffels and my two day-packs between the passengers in the back seat left little room to breathe. It was OK and tomorrow we’ll drive to Lusaka for the night and then to Vic Falls. Chris and Sarah fly home to UK from there and we’ll have plenty of room in the car.

We went on a 4 hour game drive yesterday in the late afternoon. Within 15 minutes we saw a giraffe, herds of impala and puku (a slightly larger antelope), a male elephant who charged us, and a leopard. Before we returned to camp in the dark we saw two more leopards, two lionesses asleep under a tree 10 feet from the road, bellies full of buffalo, pods of adult and baby hippos, groups of mother and baby elephants, trees full of vultures near the lion kill, a large herd of Cape Buffalo, another giraffe, a herd of zebra, two Spotted Genets (a large mongoose with a ringed tail), two White-Tailed Mongoose (? Mongeese), and on and on. This park is immense and supports an incredible array and number of animals. Only 10% of it is open for viewing. We both decided we need to pace ourselves, since we’ll be seeing lots of game parks in the next 2 months.

Packing our belongings, discarding and giving away many, was stressful. It always takes more time than one thinks and the decisions are wearing. The drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe was easy enough until the sun went down. We stopped at the Dedza Pottery Lodge to have them pack and ship our pottery home, Linda’s excellent idea, and it left us an hour driving in the dark. The M-1 is a deathtrap at night, literally, and we were exhausted when we finally arrived at Korea Garden, our familiar, clean-but-tawdry digs in LL. The Peace Corps vouchers pay for an “Executive Suite”, which has fabulous water pressure for the shower and a big flat-panel TV on which to catch glimpses of World Cup games, but no dresser.  [I felt for the poor Mexican defender who inadvertently made an own-goal. I recall a Columbian who did the same in a World Cup match years ago and was later killed by outraged fans!].  After dumping our luggage, we went to the restaurant for supper and found our friends from Mzuzu, Renee and Steve, having a drink by the pool. All was well and we settled.

We each had a lot to accomplish in 2 days in LL, especially the PC closure. It is a wonderful organization and all the staff with whom we have had contact have been as helpful as possible throughout our stay.   That stance derives from the Mission (which attracts certain types) and the Leadership, I think.  The Country Director, Carol Spahn, is a wonderful human being, as well as being smart, kind, tough, and beautiful. We’re all in love with her.

I do hope that His Eminence doesn’t eviscerate Peace Corps, as he is doing to so many important programs and government departments. It and Fulbright are probably our best Federal foreign policy initiatives, as both are directed toward friendship, cultural understanding, and exchange of knowledge, not simply raw displays of bullying, brinksmanship, and resource extraction, which seem to be his modus operandi.

I am watching two Vervet monkeys copulate on the wall by the river. The female twists her head to look at the male, as if to query, “Really? Can’t you think of anything else to do? How about a little romance? Get me some flowers? A piece of fruit?” Later, as we are eating lunch on the deck, a little one drops out of the tree right onto my shoulder, then bounds away. An accident, a gesture of friendship, an attempt to get some of the tuna melt I was eating? Likely the last.

This is an auspicious beginning to a long trip, one of Linda’s imagining for years but to which I happily subscribe. It is a dream of an opportunity for us. I am already relaxing but before I completely lose myself in the experience, I must make a reservation to fly home on 28 August! Burma is around the corner, as well!

P.S. On our second game drive we saw a leopard for half an hour. An entire pride of lions (10) passed 10 feet from us in single file, a determined female leading them on their hunt. And a mother elephant with three of her children—a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and an 8 month old. (We know because we saw the birth certificates of each!) What more is there for us at S. Luangwa? Off to Lusaka early in the morning.

P.P.S. Ironically, after rolling into Palm Garden Lodge in Lusaka, I flicked on the TV and there was a National Geographic Special on the Amazon Basin. They were following a jaguar on the hunt. It looked remarkably like what we’d been seeing in the wild, although it was just pixels. It felt silly to watch here in Africa in the midst of similar wildness, even though the photography was amazing.


24 June 2018

[Above photo: Folk art from Malawi, on homemade paper using all native materials—twigs, leaves, straw.  ]

Tuesday, the day after tomorrow, we leave Blantyre for Lilongwe. There we’ll do the requisite Peace Corps Close of Service tasks: getting our praziquantel (for possible/presumed schistosomiasis), closing our bank accounts, certifying that we leave no debts and water and electricity bills are paid to date, having a last medical exam, having our final interview with Carol Spahn (PC Malawi Director) and saying goodbye to the wonderful PC staff.

Joined by friends Chris and Sarah Jones (from UK; intimates of Linda for 35+ years), we depart Malawi for S. Luangwa Reserve in Zambia where we are bound to see lions and leopards and hyenas, oh my! After a few days, we’ll head for Victoria Falls. I am tempted to go into the ultimate infinity pool at the top of the Falls and to do an ultralight flyover but we’ll see when I get there. Supposed to be a pretty amazing zip line ride, as well! No age limits, I hope. Like those measuring posts they have for kids at pony rides. Chris and Sarah will fly home from there and we’ll be off to the Okavango Delta. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flying back from DC on Ethiopian Airlines was like going on a safari weekend. Eat, sit, eat, sit, eat, sit. It was a short trip, only 21 hours. Going was 24.5 because we had to refuel in Ireland. That may be due to headwinds encountered on the western flight, but I don’t know. If they had served injera, the spongy, sticky, sourdough flatbread that is a staple of Ethiopian life, it would have eased the pain. But, as I discovered, that was only served in First Class. When I get to Berkeley in October, I definitely want to go with one of my friend groups to eat Ethiopian.

The Fulbright orientation was comprehensive and useful. Again, we were fed and we sat, repeat many times for 3 days. I got up the first morning I was there and walked 75 minutes to the Lincoln Memorial and back. I even walked by the White House, stained now forever, I fear. I am always so taken with DC and its power and beauty and richness. The JW Marriott was very nice, the food incredibl e (grilled salmon as a choice at nearly every meal, many varieties of salad, and the deserts….!).  We kept joining all together and breaking into smaller, specific country groups, meeting all manner of interesting people. The largest group was English-language teachers, kids straight from college. It promised a kind of Peace Corps minus-the-rough-edges experience for a year. Then there were researchers and, finally, scholar/teachers in every discipline from environmental science and filmmaking to IT and psychology. Networking, I met scholars who will ask me to their sites to lecture and whom I can invite to mine, allowing us each a glimpse of, for me, Hanoi. For them, Yangon. I discovered that the academic year begins 1 December, so I’ll go a month earlier than I thought.

The Fulbright Scholar stipend is generous, with enough added to the airfare that I can take an extra box or two of books, which I’ll purchase with the generous book stipend. The housing stipend insures a comfortable abode.  All in all, it looks wonderful.

I am in hot pursuit of a contact at Medical University #1, where I’ll teach, so I can learn what they want from me. I can simply go and teach psychiatry but I need to assess to what level they are already trained  and what they feel they need. With 130+ East Asia Pacific Fulbrighters, I can imagine the logistics are difficult to coordinate this ouvre. But it is kind of disorganized and many people are in the same boat as me—a little adrift.

I have learned enough in Malawi to realize the importance of at least acknowledging cultural proprieties, even if I choose to violate some. For example, I’ll encourage the students to challenge me and force them to take some responsibility for their own learning, which is not how it is generally done in hierarchical societies. But I want them to be curious, to want to learn, and to be comfortable with critical thinking, not simply rote recitations. Also, as students we all must constantly struggle with our need to be right and how that interferes with learning. I’ll do some critical thinking myself about my pedagogy this Fall.

I have given two large bags of clothing to one of our guards. It was pretty easy to sort that out. Books have been more difficult but seeing how much I used UpToDate, a fabulous literature review and search service at Harvard, versus using books for instruction, I’ll leave almost all of my books here in the clinic and at the college. Now, to pack pottery and carvings so they survive the trip. We’ll leave our large bags at the Peace Corps office and collect them after our adventures.

We have been having farewell suppers with friends in Blantyre. Last night we travelled over the incredibly awful road to Sophie and Eric’s for an amazing feast and their company. Their house is a gorgeous manse in the woods on a hill out of town.  Their cow makes cream twice per day that is so thick it will barely pour. Eric used it in a reduction sauce for the pork ribs that was delicious beyond words, accompanied by homemade bread, potatoes au gratin, and a delicious salad, all from their garden. Linda made a mango creation with a macadamia-nut crust and wild berries on top. Lots of wine, a fire in the fireplace and …well, you get it. Eric separated, so far successfully, 4 month old Siamese twins three days ago, using two surgical teams, etc. A group of Norwegian surgeons who come to Malawi regularly were in attendance and they brought tubes of smoked codfish roe as a gift. It is amazingly tasty! And we saw slides of their family (with all 4 children) hiking and camping (and getting soaked) in Brazil. All very lovely. Tonight we’ll go to Peter and Caroline’s; we’ll shadow each other much of our trip, as we’ll be travelling a similar route.

Endings are not easy for me. Perhaps more so now because I am increasingly aware of my own eventual ending. The ultimate magic disappearing act, all of love and sorrow and adventures and boredom and accomplishment and failure—all those stories—vanish in a trice. I feel sad to leave here, especially the struggling Malawians I know, suspecting that it will only get worse as the population increases and the Earth warms and weather is less predictable. Linda’s co-faculty member, the former Dean of the School of Midwifery, and our neighbor (whose son I taught at COM last year), Ursula, mentioned yesterday that 3 graduating cohorts of nurses are scrambling to make a living outside of nursing. None of their government-funded placements have come through yet. I feel that my efforts here are futile in the long term.

Just as Melania’s prococative coat message–“I really don’t care. Do U?”– as she went to see the traumatized children who her husband is responsible for separating from their parents is infuriating and disheartening, the 600 pastors of the United Methodist Church that signed a petition for redress of Jeff Sessions, our Attorney General, for “prosecutable offenses” and “racism” gives me some hope.

However, I cannot quite get the point of all the chaos and pain being crudely and gratuitously delivered by DT in our country and abroad. I suppose it is to cement his “base” (which is truly base). I mean by that if I subscribe, little by little, to attacks and infringements on civil society, later when it becomes increasingly heinous and evil it is more difficult for me to protest and admit I was wrong. Partly it is from pride, but more persuasively because it challanges sense of my ability to perceive reality and that we hang on to very dearly indeed. Very clever.  It certainly worked in Germany in the 1930’s.

Although, what can be more evil and heinous than forcibly separating children, including toddlers, from their parents?


18 June 2018

[Above photo: Carl Brousseau shows us a snake on Mulanje.]

I’m riding the train from Williamsburg, Virginia to DC. My pre-departure orientation for the Fulbright starts this afternoon. I am eager for it to begin. And, more so, the placement. But I have wonderful things in between, as well. Boy, you got to slow that Mustang down!

I had a wonderful visit with Pat, my sister-in-law, her husband Tom, and her three sons, Roger, Keith, and Gordon. The latter three are all such interesting, fun, and caring men, each true to their father’s legacy. My brother, Roger, really chose the best; he was discerning without being picky and Pat is the smartest, loveliest woman. Tom is struggling with the ravages of old age and lots of trauma in his life but I still find him very interesting in conversation. He is pretty frail, I think, and as he was leaving to go to bed last night he said, “Have a good rest of your life.” I won’t see him again for 18-24 months, since I’ll be in Burma starting December for a year. Death is so strange, like magic. A person is there, with all their history and baggage and habits, and then they aren’t there. In a wink, sometimes.

Anyway, it was great to visit and catch up and watch re-runs of the Tracy Ullman show and laugh with them. I was jet-lagged, getting about 5 hours of sleep each night,  and would drift off like a gomer in the evening when we watched TV together. I’m gradually settling into Eastern Daylight Time and in 4 days I’ll be 6 hours off, back in Blantyre. A whipsaw of my sleep-wake cycle.

Pat reads 3 books a week and is, thus, sharp as a tack. The boys each have passions, often related to work—lucky for them. Gordy has written a memoir of their shipwreck in the Atlantic when their father died; that and a novel are with his agent, being shopped around. He is starting on another book. Keith is effortlessly fluent with IT and is very successful with his contracts with the government. He helped me immensely with several IT issues that were beyond my ken—it doesn’t have to be much to exceed my abilities but his skills make him appear the magician! And Roger is knowledgeable about almost anything I ask; he is the consummate scientist and has an astounding breadth of knowledge, from turmeric-infused “Golden Milk” to mass spectroscopy to sorting massive volumes of data into useful bites. They all love to laugh and have a lot of life experience, as well.   I often find myself relating to them as the authorities, which is pretty darn nice, if you think about it.

In the past few weeks I omitted to talk about a wonderful trip I took up Mulanje. It was Sophie’s birthday and she celebrates it each year at their cabin on top of Mulanje. It’s the only privately-held hut there. They’ve invited me before but, because of the blood-suckers, I couldn’t go. Then I was sick with a cold and Linda went without me. This time I also was 3 days into a cold, with a runny nose and cough, but was not going to lie in bed and feel dumb and sorry for myself. Everyone went up Friday to spend two nights at the cabin. My farewell party was Friday night so I planned to go up Saturday and Sophie kindly volunteered to accompany me.

The walk was glorious, the prettiest yet for me up Mulanje. Tiny waterfalls in fern-crowded glens, strange-shaped rocks—one was a perfect skiff—, and views of all creation, which conveniently kept shifting. I struggled, being ill, but arrived at the top feeling pleased that I had and the others there were welcoming. Carl, an environmentalist, kept catching gorgeous non-venomous snakes to show us. We felt sorry for the large party we could see (barely) climbing Sapitwa to camp for the night. I feared I’d be cold, as it is winter and at elevation.  Why would I have brought my good sleeping bag to tropical Africa? Eric provided two extra bags and their dog, Ticky (?sp), curled up and slept next to me all night, a still, silent heater. Jill and Terie made wonderful food, cooked outside over an open fire, and Sophie and I destroyed the other two pairs at Scrabble. Sophie saw “debased” and we unloaded all our letters onto a triple word score box. Simple pleasures! I sometimes like games where you are encouraged to be mean to the others; croquet is a perfect example. Lots of laughter as you send the leader’s ball into the weeds.

Everyone I know loves train travel. This one is pretty slow, with long pauses, even backing up once to get on another track to let a freight pass. But I’m not in a hurry and it is so smooth and effortless. Our President is missing the boat (train) in trying to revive Old Coal and Weary Steel when we should be leading the world in alternative energy and preparing for the demise of the individual automobile by building a comprehensive rail system.

And children in cages. Jesus, it boggles the mind! His cruelty, stupidity, and short-sightedness know no bounds. Life is so difficult for impoverished people anyway. Add vicious gangs threatening and exploiting them. Then a cruel leader who thinks to use separating children from their parents as a deterrent. When the public is outraged, his Eminence tries to shake off his responsibility by lying about it. “It’s those nefarious Democrats.” I see the American Academy of Pediatrics came out strongly against it. While the president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a letter on the Academy website, I have not seen a strong position in the media taken by the organization. It makes me ashamed of being a part of it. Perhaps there was a vigorous but silent lobbying effort that I don’t know of, but I doubt it. AACAP has been a toothless organization for many years, unless biting the critics of Big Pharma. Time for me to give this post a rest, I think.


[Above photo: The Room 6 Crew: (L to R) Charles, Joyce, Millie, Linly, and me. ]

10 June 2018

I missed a week again! I am racing around, tying up the many loose ends. I returned this afternoon from Cape Town (8 hours in planes and airports), where I visited my sister (89yo this summer), her daughter, Deirdre, and Jacob, D.’s 11yo son. My sister, Nan, had an episode of confusion and weakness recently and was hospitalized for a few days. It seems her serum sodium level was very low, which will certainly cause the above symptoms, but is completely reversible with water restriction. She is back to where she was when I visited them in October. Deirdre is amazing, with many sophisticated and ambitious projects to improve S. Africa’s oceanographic capabilities and Jacob is a whiz. They are clearly thriving in Cape Town in a way that would be difficult in the much more expensive arena of Bethesda from whence they came. Jacob is a Scout (always coed in S Africa), plays cricket and soccer, excels in school, won a nationwide contest in his age group for robotics, does Tai Kwando, can solve very complex Rubix cubes in a jiffy {with effort and luck I can solve one face of the very basic cube!), is learning Afrikaans, and has lots of friends and is a great guy.  Their house has a swimming pool, is a block from a park and 2 blocks from Jacob’s school, and has  a convenient guest house on the property. To cope with the drought in Cape Town, they installed, underground, two large tanks to collect rainwater off the roof along with a system to manage it. They also are very close, but out of earshot, to a major train station. Just goes to show—-some important principle which escapes me at this minute!

I head for DC in 3 days to visit family in Williamsburg and then to the PDO (pre-departure orientation) for the Fulbright.  It is doing strange things to me to feel so rootless. I said goodbye to the Cape Towners, knowing I won’t see them for 1 ½ or 2 years. Linda will join me for some of it but, basically, I’ll be on my own, meeting new people for my social needs and interests, and working in a novel terrain, although in a field I know quite well. It is just such a dramatic change from being part of a couple, a nuclear family, an extended family, a network of close friends and colleagues, etc. for most of my adult life. Part of me dreads it, fearing I’ll be too lonely and lose my bearings, part of me looks forward to it with excitement and a sense of adventure. My sister asked, “Why are you doing this?” I replied, “Because it seems exciting to me and possibly of value to others.” I think she was asking why I was leaving the familiar, including family, behind. (Of course, she moved to Africa with her daughter and grandson a few years ago, as I pointed out to her!) A difficulty at my (or her) age, especially, is that the likelihood of it being the last time we meet is somewhat increased. That saddens me but it isn’t a reason to desist what is interesting and exciting to any of us.

There was a Farewell party for Stefan last week at Bombay Palace, including the Clinic Nurses, the Clinic Clerk, the Mental Health Users and Carers Volunteer, the Registrars, the three graduated Malawian psychiatrists, members of the department, some prominent researchers in Mental Health, and others. It was very sweet and it wasn’t until the giving of gifts that I realized it was for me, as well. We got new chitenjes, and modelled them for the crowd. This has been an incredible experience for me and Stefan has been a huge part of it. We’ve been together in the trenches and if we’ve irritated each other at times, overall we’ve developed a friendship borne of joint struggle and shortages and too many complex and ill patients. The evening was sweet and the food excellent Indian. At the end the organizer ran out of Kwatcha, so Stefan and I ponied up the difference. Then those of us with cars took the others home. My charge lived in a tiny village outside of the town proper, down a long, very rough dirt track. At night it was a bit dicey, as there are no streetlights. It does bring home, again, how low the pay is for healthcare (and most government) workers in Malawi and how modestly they must live.

Catherine, our guard, asked me for 65 cents for minibus fare for her and her eldest daughter, Ruth, whom she said had malaria and was very sick. This was Wednesday evening. She was going to take her to the hospital in the morning. I sent her home from work and made her promise to take her daughter to the hospital that evening. The next morning, as I was preparing to head to the airport (for CT), Catherine came by on her way to visit her daughter who had been admitted to hospital the previous evening. She must have been pretty ill and I’m glad to have pressed for it.

Linda just returned from the US where she’s been for 2 weeks and from E. London, S. Africa where she went with two Malawian colleagues to visit a model midwifery ward. The long and short of it is that they were treated very well, accomplished what she wanted and then some (activating the other faculty about pushing forward the model midwifery ward for Queens), and was very taken with the level of knowledge, organization, and graciousness of her hosts and the quality of the facility. If they come to visit Queens, they will have a shock, given the rats, the lack of sheets, food, staff, etc. for patients, and pretty much everything else. This is a poor, poor country.

I’m wearing out and have left a lot of the past 2 weeks out but need to sleep. I’ll attempt to be more assiduous with my postings—I know, promises, promises. I suppose I’ll get a new domain name for the Burma letter.