You've just flown thousands of miles across massive oceans and expanses of land. You've had too many airport transfers to bother remembering. Those weren't cheap tickets or easy transit days. But you came to relive those deeply rooted Lion King fantasies from your childhood and by golly you'll do anything to make those happen!One thing you will realize upon getting to Africa is that the wild animals aren't really as close to civilization as some North American wildlife can be. We may imagine lions wandering into people's flower gardens and elephants backing into generators, cutting of the city's power supply. But unless you hit up a National Park in a city like Nairobi or Nakuru, you have a long way to drive to get to those classic landscapes teeming with long-necked, 2 ton, man-eating herds.
Therefore, most travelers who want to see East Africa and live out their safari dreams either book a full service transport/guide/camping/catering service from Arusha or Nairobi or they overland on massive multi-functional vehicles. Regardless of your travel mode, quality is key and can dictate whether you enjoy yourself or not. Research the companies and their average age of passenger or style of travel and make sure it fits with you. Ask about the experience of their drivers or guides. When it comes to the driver or tracker on safari, he or she needs to have loads of experience in order to find what you are hoping to see. Those who have been around for a while are downright psychic when it comes to predicting animal appearances or future behavior. Also, inquire about the vehicles for the drives into and around the game parks. Land Rovers clearly trump Land Cruisers, and vehicles with frequent maintenance will make, not break, your experience. No one likes getting stranded in those steamy, remote landscapes.
And if you're looking for a straight forward recommendation, I actually really dug our tour company because they met every standard of quality I found important. Bottom line is to decide what you find important (comfort, experience, fellow passengers, travel style, etc.) and do the research. No one wants to spend wads of dough and realize they missed the mark on their travel dreams.
Chapter Three: Leaving Dar, Looking for Livingstone The creases of my eyes remained dry. My pupils fixed on the back of our new drivers' heads in the new cab...of the new truck. I felt ashamed at the somewhat "poor little rich girl" moment, this sadness for the changes in company and wishful abandonment of the leg ahead. Young Peter, the other spry hoodlum like me on the truck, stared at me in disbelief during the first breakfast, hours after leaving our old guides in Dar, and after a long silence exclaimed, "Why the hell are you so freaking miserable?"
This trip of mine is about the people, and this trip of mine isn't about the people. I haven't made it a main mission, but I seem to acquire great companionship on every leg of this journey...which only makes the transitions more emotional, the events more enjoyable, and the introspection less important and more avoidable. It took me a while to forget the loneliness caused by the loss of those expiration friendships, and in the meantime, I fought to get back in the state of mind conducive to self-discovery...while bouncing, yet again.
Driving across the entire width of Tanzania in two 12+ hour days gave me plenty of miserable, staring-out-the-window time...and then I saw the water, again. Lake Malawi tricked me into thinking I was lounging again at the seaside and somehow connected by water to my soul's content state and my lost friends. But it didn't make sense that this massive body with waves and sand had no shells or salt. The existence of Carlsberg' Elephant beer, however, made me 7.2% less aware of the recent past and, finally, more present with my new company.
The evening's bungalow parties, isolated from the old Drago passengers and dripping with humor and contentment, made me smile. But during the day, when these seven new pax paired off to spend their heftier bank accounts on activities, I took my travel notebook, iPod, and sarong to the "beach" and submerged into a world where those around me don't exist and my mind scales, traverses, and swims great distances to the point of bodily exhaustion. I wrote all day and started sleeping a lot more.
There is a perfect spot at Kande Beach for sun-downers, where a piece of the bar's patio juts into the sand like the bow of a ship. I sat there in the afternoon one day, listening to nothing but the often neglected songs from my audio collection and putting every passing mental bite on paper. And then I stopped, balled my outlets into my clothing, and started running into the lake, feeling equal parts regret and exhilaration as more and more of my dry skin and suit became drenched.
I had to go out at least 150 feet before the chilly water was deep enough to envelop me, and at that distance, I dipped my head into the lake, only to emerge feeling as though I just realized where I was and what I was doing there.
In the movie, its the moment when the weight of the past pulls the audience in, utterly concerned for me, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer or John Williams crescendos as I enter a place where tears can finally fall. And here, where my head returns to air, more aware of the confusing side of life, the camera sits, half-underwater and spaced from me, as to not disturb this pivotal life moment. It was at this moment that I felt very strongly the abnormality of my path and the certain disappointment that will come when parts of my soul remain unfulfilled.
There's simply no way to do all that I feel called to do in life, and since I cannot silence these needs, my heart will never feel weightless. Sometimes, a cloud covers the sun beams in the day...and this was one of those times.
As much fun as being deep and emotional is, I didn't want to be the young, dark, sleepy girl for the next two weeks, especially when passengers from the prior leg knew how light-hearted I can be. So I went about meeting the young German girl and the new Drago crew.
Lara, a 20 year old from Dusseldorf traveling with her father, provided nice companionship, even though our dialogue struggled to transcend the language barrier at times. Though they both expressed their intentions to do their own things, Lara found trouble getting space from her father, so she spent much of her time feeling obligated and unlike herself. Made it a bit difficult to become better friends.
I tried to bond with Lucy. Every fiber of that girl's being is dedicated to the life she leads, her job and calling to be an overlander. Free time she spent performing engine checks, managing the finances, filling out meticulous paperwork, and many times doing jobs most other overlanders delegate to other people. She always refused the free bed at each camp site for her mattress atop the truck and ate last to consume all the less appetizing tidbits of the meal, avoiding the bagging for leftovers. I cannot say that she didn't make time for her passengers, as she was always around to offer me some chit-chat, but there was no distracting her from the life she loved. Her demeanor was reassuring and nice to observe in a world where many are unhappy and I struggle to find the same contentment...but I still remained without a good connection on the trip.
I shared some drinks and chatter with the co-driver, Mark, and some laughs with the cook, Vesh, but I was spoiled by my comrades from the past...and very aware of the kind of people I like to be around. I found my type; didn't know I had one.
Goodness, what depressing material. Have I mentioned how beautiful Lake Malawi was by hammock? Or the enjoyment I reaped from going grocery shopping with Vesh and Lucy? It wasn't all gloomy thoughts from start to finish, and, actually, the trip went steadily uphill, starting with the road to South Luangwa National Park.
Four hours of corrugation, dust, and potholes were broken up by a roadside meal, next to the smallest scorpion possible to exist, and a parade-like drive through the cliche idea of Africa, where we sat on the truck roof and waved at the screaming, running Zambian children...until they started asking for sweets. There was the frequent low branch that caused us to fold in half at the waist and duck for cover, getting scratched from shoulder to butt. Incidentally, the truck ended its journey to the camp site covered in unripe mangoes.
The Luangwa river is the natural border between the National Park and the human world. This strip of water is murky entirely, its surface almost motionless except for the occasional, and quite frightening, eye, ear, or tail of a human-munching killer, breaking that serene surface with a terrorizing presence. The adjacent bank is nothing but riddled with footprints of hippos and crocs. Up the bank, no more than 100 feet is Flatdogs camp site, our home for three nights.
Each tent kept its distance from each other and other obstructions by one meter, at least, the average width of an adult elephant. No food, trash bin, drying clothes, or window ajar were left in the presence of the nut case baboons, which stalked the grounds waiting for human error.
We all took our chances with the weather at night, leaving the flies in the tent bags and tying up the tent flaps, in case we arose in the wee hours to the sound of munching beyond the nylon walls and wanted an unobstructed view. This was hippo grazing ground: the ground within a inch of each tent. A half-asleep bathroom outing in the middle of chow time could and would honestly cost you your life. Nothing about dangerous toilet breaks gets old.
The paucity of upgrades made tents in high demand, so Lisa, a cast member of the Golden Girl-Drago era, and I joined forces and decided upon erecting our tent on a tree platform, which hovered just out of reach of an out-stretched elephant trunk. At this slightly improved elevation in this more inspirational location, I felt compelled to write something more typical of my mind, something searching for meaning and laced with satisfaction of my present state. I had recovered.
Three nights among the wildlife...days spent in the park, at a nearby village, and a third at stationary peace...all wonderful. Our game drives were fruitful and diverse, involving, at one climactic moment, the intense, defensive roar of a dining leopard, coming no further than five feet from our jeep's front tire. With a thinner group, we went on a village tour an hour away...and for the first time in weeks, the experience felt welcoming, interesting, and downright fun. This may have been caused in part by the chances to both visit a witch doctor and to join a village shake session...where, once more, my own capabilities fell short of African hips.
Maybe more smile-inducing than that, I finally sat up front in the cab and played DJ with my own music, appealing to the group and pleasing myself as I heard the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Space Capone reverberate off mud brick huts. Those days in the bush were turning points for chapter three. I lost the loneliness of heart and spent more time laughing, laughing at the Germans who waited a half hour in the bathroom because an adult elephant with monstrous tusks munched by the doorway, trapping then in awe inside.
Canoeing down the Lower Zambezi river, which borders Zimbabwe, was the main event for many of the passengers on this leg. By the time the Drago journeys started, I had completely forgotten the expected itineraries, including the exciting highlights due ahead of us.
En route to the canoeing safari starting point, we stopped to camp at a dark, unfriendly locale run by a racist, drunk, and incredibly abrasive Dutch man. The drive day was long, and, for the first time, we arrived after the sky lost all evidence of color or light. No one was in high spirits, especially when we realized the spirits cost more than they would at a posh restaurant in the USA.
And then we heard a scream. He called her name over and over in breathless pain. I heard it in the back of my mind, and suddenly the woman I was talking to started sprinting up the hill towards her fiance's yelps. The Irish couple left for Lusaka an hour later to wait outside the best hospital in Central Africa until opening time, Chris' ankle propped up on bags and padded with ice and a homemade splint. The horrible Dutch owner was stingy with adequate lighting by his cabins, and, with that, we lost those people most excited about the canoe safari as they flew home to reset his broken bones. I started walking with sure footing immediately.
We were paddling with the current, floating at a steady clip near the trusty guides and smiling from the recent elephant sighting. Lisa was in front, and I concentrated on keeping us on course and not splashing her back with each hand switch. The green streamed by the left side of the canoe at the same time we experienced an unsettling tousle.
Surprisingly little flashed in my head at the moment I thought I was going to die. I froze and simply thought, "whoa...crocodile." To our utter relief, it was a stump streaming with weeds, one of the five biggest dangers on the canoe safari, behind hippos, crocs, elephants, and the blazing African sun.
Zambia on the left and Zimbabwe on the right, we covered 40 km in two days, avoiding wading hippos, crossing elephants, and sun-bathing reptiles in some situations that were far too close for comfort. Meals were picnics under trees on islands claimed by neither country. The dangling of flesh over the sturdy, fiberglass canoes was only o.k. if you insisted on getting that part amputated.
At designated points along the way, when safety was fairly certain, we swam in the Zambezi, whose micah content makes it shimmer like magic water. Our guides, knowledgeable on every aspect of the outing, followed in true African man fashion, flirting with every unattached woman on the trip. Completely uninterested, I used this extra attention to become informed on the Southern Hemisphere's constellations and to get added security while swimming in beast-infested waters.
This flirtatious Martin thought I would be interested in discovering some lion poo, but in the seconds we stooped to investigate the dried clumps, we heard a scream. I turned to see a flash of blue as Vesh frantically fastened her pants while fleeing from a charging mother elephant. Once again...the fun of bush toilets...makes the walk to the heated tile floors and quilted paper seem boring, eh? Lara and I had a perfect vantage point of the mammoth's advance and Vesh's all-star sprint to safety. We used each other for balance as we doubled over in belly laughter. It was still funny hours later.
Perfect orange sunsets on bubbling landscapes. Bush fire camps and good books. An almost alarmingly close connection to nature. A break from sitting on a truck. All just a few wonderful things about a canoe safari on the Zambezi river of Africa.
And, of course, just when I am finding some comfort with this group and our dynamic, the leg to Livingstone comes to an end. I became almost tear-choked thinking about the perfection of my coming Golden birthday, a day that would include a flight over the world's largest waterfall by microlight, relaxation, free drinks, and a sunset cruise alongside our ghastly friends from the canoe experience. The Germans honored the stroke of my day with a shot and a hug, sure to let me know I was around people that would make the day [that I care far too much about] special.
The microlight took off from the dirt runway without much power or effort, and the lack of ground contact sent a surge of terror from my wide eyes to my sudden death grip on the handles. It was a surreal satellite view of the interwoven borders of Africa's Z countries. The mist rose slightly, and it was almost too much when the pilot dropped us sideways, swirling down like a leaf towards the thundering water below. My helmet's visor gathered the mist that stung my exposed chin when our shadow cast over the rainbow. 15 minutes flew by...pun intended.
After continuously refusing free drinks for weeks from the friendly new passengers, I decided a birthday isn't a bad time to take advantage of such generosity without mounding guilt. The sunset cruise gave us all an excuse to shed the normally nasty and rather masculine clothes and showcase our classy sides.
Before boarding the boat, we posed with Claudia, our trusty steed, before they opened the doors to blare a zesty version of "Happy Birthday" while bringing out a melting pink and white cake. We brought it on the cruise to share with all those people not with our swingin' party. I soaked up the African birthday anthem, a smile from ear to ear, and chopped the pastry up for all the strangers that sang to me, telling them, "I hate not getting cake when it's someone else's birthday." Obviously, thoughts and words were uninspired that fine dusk.
That night, back on land, I hugged many people goodbye and retired for a last night of tent-a-licious slumber...but not before the camp site's bar band tried to pay me a tribute by playing my favorite song. Only one guy knew "Little Wing," so the attempt was spotty and lacking finesse...but I sat on the floor about a foot from the bass drum with yet another broad grin on my 23 year old facade.
I came to Africa. I saw five of her sprawling countries. I think to say conquered would be misleading, but I definitely didn't let her get the best of me. I laugh in the face of malaria...for now.
TWA...That Was Africa.
I fear the worst has happened. As we sit here bunkering off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, with the entire skyline in view, I cannot begin to summon up my most exciting and memorable experiences into a simple Word document. I am accustomed to and comfortable with the unfathomable, the exotic, the unique lifestyle I have developed in the past thirty-three days. Maybe it is because the fear for my own life was not a dominant emotion during this port, as it was in sunny, dangerous Brazil. Through this port, I knew the spoken language and spent a good time isolated and guarded by mall security and rangers on a safari. Upon my first step off the gangway, I celebrated my first moments on a new continent and ran to make the most of the first day. Camera poised and eyes engaged, I waltzed down Long Street, only after many long, unwanted delays from the boys gawking at every American store we passed.
The unimaginable occurred as we walked down the busiest street in Cape Town, I had money…in my pocket. No money belt here! I was smooth sailing, shopping without a care, talking to the taxi drivers about things to do, life was great. I'm setting myself up for a harsh downfall with this build-up, but one needn't worry, I'm still alive.
After my friends left on a Kruger safari, I wandered without a destination throughout a very wet Cape Town with a calling card and umbrella in hand. Never have I been alone on the opposite edge of the Earth and met up with an old high school and college friend…until now. Julie and I found each other at the wharf, enjoyed some leisurely walking, shopping and some intense, gluttonous activity.
After delighting the spirit of Sir Fidel, I flew across the nation to visit his relatives, the wild lions of the African bush, only to find that I didn't enter the Manyeleti Game Reserve so much as a Pottery Barn catalog. Waterfall showerheads and plush down comforters hardly screamed "safari" to me, although my limited knowledge of safari norms comes from childhood viewings of the Lion King. Aside from the rangers and reserve staff, we were the only human beings inhabiting the reserve those few days, but sadly, the number of different animal species I spotted in the wild dwarfed the number of people in my group with whom I enjoyed conversing.
Seated atop an open 4x4 land rover, I positioned myself near the ranger, the tracker, and the rifle, in case there were things to be learned or approaching predators to be shot. I didn't want to be slipped off the back seat by a mischievous baboon or an elephant momentarily turned carnivore.
The African bush presented a surprise to all of us expecting rolling grasslands and Bilbao trees decorating the sunrise landscape. I had my eyes peeled as if I could track those clever animals myself, trying to peer through the thick shrubbery for a glimpse of a zebra stripe. Even if I was looking in the direction of a herd of wildebeest, it was only after the tracker, seated on the hood of the vehicle, spotted them from a mile away, redirected our route to an off road path closer by, and situated us within a few yards of the creatures that I could actually notice their presence among us.
The most impressive spotting occurred in the black of night, when the tracker raised his hand, screeched our progress to a halt, and walked halfway into the bush only to emerge with a five inch chameleon he found in a tree. After we snapped numerous photographs of his findings, he placed the little amphibian back on its territorial branch, walking through Black Mamba infested grasslands in the process.
Five game drives, each including a break for tea or cocktails, resulted in an extensive animal sighting list: a pride of lions, hippos, a massive herd of buffalo, hyenas, a Black Mamba, a Pufferhead, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, leopard, giraffes, owls, impala, kudus, water buck, crocodile, chameleon, mongoose, and baboons. Our only viewings of ostrich and springbok, South Africa's national symbol, were in the form of filets, finely sliced and garnished with parsley and sweet potatoes.
One of the most shocking personal revelations I had on this safari was the fact that twelve hours of travel by air and bus to and from the reserve didn't phase me in the least bit. When an afternoon nap at sea can be marked in nautical miles, it's actually more shocking to stay put.
As enjoyable as it was to experience an African safari with some of the most knowledgeable rangers on the continent, I counted down the hours until my social circle reunited. Upon returning to my shipboard cabin, I learned a valuable lesson about eating before taking malaria medicine, but no amount of unpleasant gastro-intestinal activity can keep me from living my South African days to their fullest.
The next morning sped toward us in what felt like minutes, and we arrived at the Clocktower Mall just in time for a township visit. Entrepreneurs decorated the paved streets of the Langa township selling barbequed sheep's head, used dress pants, and assorted homemade goods off the bordering fences and poorly constructed booths. I kept my camera rested in hand to minimize my game drive tendencies because even though I was, once again, invading a new community, I was there to experience first-hand instead of just observing the oldest tribe of people in human history, the Xhosa.
A woman lovingly entitled "Mums" invited us into her two room home where she houses a family of six and her own jewelry business. As she showed us her scrapbook and explained the Xhosa rituals, we attempted to mimic her spoken clicks that seemed to flow off her tongue much easier than ours. Hugs, pictures and jewelry purchases brought a close to our home visit as we began our walking tour of the Langa township.
We could sense a definite feeling of community among neighbors that we agreed was lacking in America. Robb and I found ourselves willing and eager to live in these conditions if it was possible to experience their simple and proud lifestyle. While walking through a butcher shop/smokehouse/bar/living room/convenience store, Alexis and I could have sworn we were walking through a fraternity house and nearly felt comfortable enough to plop on a nearby emerald couch.
Odd sights of stylish Mercedes driving by roadside sheep's head BBQs and sounds of American house music blaring from twenty square foot shacks were just a few of the surprises on our way.
A large barbed wire fence came into view and soon a stampede of preschool children ran to the four American kids approaching their gate. One child appeared uninterested as he rolled a wheel about the playground, but the remaining one hundred forty-nine eager students ran towards us as soon as Robb's stickers emerged from our pockets. Even though there was a horrendous language barrier between us and the children, they understood what our cameras were doing and that tens of stickers could cling to the face with a simple press of the thumb. Those kids marked a highlight from Cape Town for all of us.
We capped the Cape Town experience off with dinner on the wharf, a couple of beers, and a last sunset that silhouetted our ship to an orange sky. And with a final toast of our massive mugs, our foursome made a vow that Cape Town would see us again, united and eager to share another amazing time together, and that time will be the 2010 FIFA World Cup.