Some mornings, I am astonished at how wonderful it is to live in a place where we have the luxury to set aside wide tracts of lands to preserve our natural heritage. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge evokes that response in me. It’s even more astonishing that because a couple years ago I bought a lifetime Senior Pass, getting into the national parks is free – for the rest of my life. What a great country we live in.
It is a cold and frosty morning as we load up to head out to St. Marks for some serious bird watching and photographing. Serious, that is, for AdventureMan, who actually does birding trips with other serious birders. I am a bird-appreciator, as in I know what a cardinal is, and a blue jay. I can pretty well recognize a buzzard. Hey, show me a painting and I can probably tell you who painted it, but birds . . . not so much.
I love being outdoors in Florida on a wonderful clear cool day with fabulous conditions for taking photos. I love just wandering along some of the birding trails and seeing what we can see. It’s an amazing place; in some of the areas where we stopped to wander, it reminded me of places we like to go in Africa, of Zambia, of Namibia, of Botswana . . . some of the habitat is so alike, I can almost hear those tectonic plates creaking apart, drifting, and wonder how much of the flora is directly related to African flora.
We had these in Tunisia; we called them Prickly Pear, and the Tunisians used them for borders to separate their lands. They also made jam with the prickly pears, and they skinned the leaves and fried up the meat from inside the thick prickly pear leaves. I think what a great border they would make in Pensacola, but a very unfriendly border. Good for keeping away thieves and burglers, but not very attractive, and not very welcoming . . . but very very African:
Some fishermen, probably setting some crab traps near the shore:
The St. Mark’s lighthouse:
Every now and then you have a lucky moment, and I happened to shoot this heron just as he had a wiggling sparkly fish in his beak, just before he swallowed it. I admit it, I wasn’t trying. If I had been trying, I could never have gotten it just at the right moment:
Some very clever park person went around and made all the deer crossing signs into Rudolph signs, LOL!
The park is full of very serious-faced people carrying HUGE lenses on cameras attached to seriously sturdy tripods, lenses meant to capture the details of the pinfeathers, cameras to document a rare sighting. These people don’t talk about ducks, they talk about Merganzers and Koots, and the rarely seen such-and-such, and I just listen and keep my mouth shut while my head spins.
For me, it’s enough to see these wonderful creatures, free of fear, safe in their migrations. It’s enough to have a cool day, a great day for walking, and NO mosquitos. It’s a great day for my kind of birding, which is very non-serious to be sure.
This brand new book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series could not have come at a better time for me. Sorting through, giving away, selling my car – it all takes a toll. It’s a little like dying, this moving. I know I will be “resurrected” in another life, but in the meanwhile, I have so much grief, and I just stuff it away and keep going. These books are my carrots; they are my reward at the end of the day.
I have a stack of books and I am going through them like a locomotive – just chugging along.
Mma Precious Ramotswe and her totally different world in Botswana sweep me away totally. I love the sweetness of the way she thinks, her love for her country, and her tolerance. In Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, several things are going on at once, not the least of which is that she, also, must part with her dearly loved little white van, which has gone as far as it can go, and can go no further. The engine cannot be revived, not even one more time, by her dear husband, mechanic J.L.B. Matekoni.
Just in time, just when they need a new customer, comes Mr. Molofololo, the owner and manager of the Kalahari Swoopers, who hires Mma Ramotswe to find the traitor who is causing the Swoopers to lose their games.
Last, but not least, Mma Makutsi’s fiancee (she is the Assistant Detective now, remember?) Phuti Radiphuti, is being assaulted by Makutsi’s old rival from the secretarial school, Violet Sephotho, who is looking for a rich husband, and would love to steal Grace’s fiancee away, for all the worst reasons. How can plain Grace, with her big glasses and her unfortunate complexion, compete with the glamorous and seductive Violet? Can Phuti resist her wiles?
When I reached the last ten pages of the book, none of these crises had been resolved, and I thought “Oh no! How can the book end with all these loose ends out there?” but in a deft drawing together, McCall vanquishes the devils, finds simple solutions, and leaves us with Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi having tea together at the President Hotel.
This book is a great way to end the day with a smile on your face. I bought this book for $21 in a bookstore, but Amazon has it for $14.37 plus shipping. I don’t buy a lot of hardcover books, but this one was worth every penny.
Our trip started at the Grumeti River Camp and continued on the the Serengeti Tent Camps. We have filled our eyes and ears with the sights and sounds of the Great Migration, and have had the thrills of elephants, giraffes, lions, hyenas, alligators and vultures in addition. Now it is time to head north, to the Klein’s Wilderness Camp, located near Klein’s Wilderness Lodge.
The “airport” at Serengeti, from where we are flying, is a busy little place with one open-to-the-air little cafe and a toilet down a path with two stalls. It’s the bring-your-own paper kind of place, but it’s nice there is that convenience. The landing strip itself is just a cleared piece of ground where the little two engine planes land and take off.
Our flight is larger than most we have taken, maybe 20-something people, most on the way home or to Zanzibar. First, they are dropping us off at Kleins, a short flight away. The landing field at Klein’s has a little antelope running across it when we get there, so the pilot circles and lands on the lush green landing strip. There is no one there. We wait, it is inevitable that a car come roaring around the curve any moment now, but no car comes. The pilot comes on the microphone and asks who the passengers are for Klein’s, and we raise our hands.
“I can’t leave you here,” he says.
We totally understand. There are lions around. This is a wild country.
“I have to take you to Arusha with us,” he says, “and I will bring you back on the next flight.”
I am not entirely unhappy. In the tiny little airport in Arusha, I found a vendor who is selling Masai textiles and raw gems at very good prices. He is Moslem, and astounded that I speak some Arabic. When I come back to his shop, he is delighted to see me again. (or maybe I paid too much the first time, ya think?)
I pick up a few more momentos, and head back for the airline departure desk, where there is a very loud argument going on over the telephone about who is to blame about our not being picked up at Klein’s Wilderness Camp. The Camp says the airlines never told them. The airlines say they did. It’s on our itinerary, which we have had for months, and we landed exactly when they said we would, but in Africa, you have to stay flexible, flight schedules change depending on where customers need to be dropped off. It doesn’t pay to get angry or aggressive, you learn to just go with the flow. Things will work out.
A short time later, the pilot takes us to the plane for the flight back, and whoa! We fly right over an active volcano!
This time, when we get to Klein’s, a car is waiting and the arguement between Klein’s and the airlines continues. On the way to Klein’s, we are told that they were never told when we would be arriving.
Don’t you hate it when people refuse to take any responsibility? The airlines treated us so well, the pilot said he didn’t think it was their fault but he went out of his way to make sure we felt well taken care of. This is the only time at CCAfrica that we felt the camp was not well managed, and part of that feeling came from this continual message of “it’s not our fault.” We later learned that the previous camp manager had just been fired and a new manager was starting, and there was a lot of work going on to try to get the camp back on track.
This was another beautiful location, we were high up and could see forever.
Sometimes, in the mornings, or in the late afternoon, the migrating antelope came through the camp. We could sit outside and just watch them file past.
Most of our days in this camp, we would leave early in the morning, have lunch with us so we would stop somewhere in the park, and not get back until late at night. These are the vehicles we travelled in, stopped for a break
Some of the roads were barely there, were pitted, or rutted, or were raw rock:
We spent hours watching the zebra herds, and the shy antelope:
“How can you spend hours watching zebra?” you might ask. Every zebra is different. It’s particularly fun watching female zebra with their young. When they are born, the momma zebra insures that her little baby zebra sees only her coat for the first important hours of it’s life, so that the baby can recognize the momma zebra’s own unique markings:
But there were other thrills as well. The nice thing about travelling in a very small group (most of the time just AdventureMan and I and the guide) was that you can ask them to stop while you photograph a beautiful purple flower:
And if you see a leopard, you can just sit and watch him as long as you like:
We rarely ran into others from the camps, but this Masai was accompanying another group:
Among the thrills in this more northern camp were also the glorious birds. This is one of our favorites, a Lilac Breasted Roller:
I’m not sure what this bird is, probably a common starling. His fluorescent coloring attracted my eye. AdventureMan says that the fluorescent coloring happens a lot in birds which eat excrement, but he is not sure that is true, just what he thinks he remembers:
We love travelling with CCAfrica. They specialize in eco-tourism, like the Robin Pope Safari Camps we travel with in Zambia. Our all time favorite safari with them was The Hemingway, a 14 day safari through Botswana, starting in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls, heading south to Chobe and Moremi, Savute, the Okavango and then flying into the Kalahari. It was an all-time thrill. If January is a little slow for you and you want to read about the Hemingway Safari you can click on that blue type and it will take you to the first entry – of thirteen! I wrote it up back when I was first blogging, sort of as a discipline for myself to get it all down in writing. There aren’t a lot of photos – I wasn’t digital then – but it is a very thorough description of a trip-of-a-lifetime safari.
Even though they don’t seem to offer this particular safari anymore, CCAfrica will tailor any safari you want to your specifications. What we loved about the Hemingway was that so much of it was under canvas, so we would be sleeping right out among the animals – and listening all night.
A warning – none of these safaris are for people who HATE getting up early. The game is active in early early morning and late afternoon, so most camps get you up at 5:30 – 6:00 so you can grab a quick cup of coffee and bite to eat and then run for the jeeps/vehicles that will take you out to see the game. It can be very cold on an early morning game run, but oh – the thrills! It is SO worth it! You come back late morning, have your mid-day meal, which in these camps is always amazing, and then you have quiet time in the heat of the afternoon, when you can catch up on those zzZZZZZZZzzzzz’s you missed out on in the early morning. You wake up refreshed, ready for afternoon tea and your afternoon/evening game drive. They feed you and feed you – but we never gain weight on these trips, maybe because you are rocking around over the rough roads all day.
And, when the trip is over, and you are ready for a few days of sloth and luxury before you return to the real world, there is no better spot for transitioning than the CCAfrica private island hideaway of Mnemba, a place we dream about on a cloudy dark day in Kuwait:
That is Mnemba island in the background, viewed from the beach in Zanzibar. You take a boat to get there, and when you land, you land barefoot. You never put your shoes on the entire time you are there. It is beautiful, secluded, luxurious and infinitely private. You can have all your meals in your own banda, if you wish. They have their own marine reserve, a dive shop, snorkeling equipment and it is all included. They even have internet.
View from our Mnemba banda:
Our last morning hearing “Good morning” and zip zip, as our water is delivered. The big full moon is still up as we get our coffee around the campfire, hating to go. But, all too soon, it is time to load our bags into the truck and head for the airstrip. It is cold. I have my sweater on over my dress. Both Godfrey and Paul, at separate times, admire my long Saudi dress, and tell me with approval that I look like an African woman. I am just glad that there are also blankets available in the truck, as it is really, really cold in the desert.
I am even more glad for the blanket a couple hours later, when Godfrey slows the truck, and then stops. In the middle of the road, not 100 yards away, are two lions. Big young male lions. They show no fear, and, in fact, one starts walking purposefully toward the truck. He eventually turns back, but as we begin to leave, he turns back for another look. Now, there are three of them. The biggest keeps walking toward us, and walks to the side of the truck, the side where I am sitting. Godfrey tells us just to keep still, and all that he has taught us about lions goes through my mind. Sit still, look him in they eye so he will know you are dominant and not afraid.
We’ve seen lions before, in Chobe, in Moremi, and in these more heavily travelled game parks, I think the animals know you aren’t a threat. Most of the time, they just tolerate you presence, or slowly walk away. And, my friends, I am looking this lion in the eye. He is four feet from me. And I know sees me. And I don’t think he thinks I am a part of the diesel and rubber smell, he looks amused, and intrigued, and . . .hungry.
I have seen my cats look at little mice the same way. And I am aware that we have no gun, and no real weapon. There is a shovel, but it is attached to the front bumper. The jack is on the rear bumper. There are thermoses, but they are in the wicker baskets. I am sitting her with nothing but a blanket and a camera, and this big interested looking lion is within pouncing distance. And he doesn’t think I am dominant. And he is very, very close. “Godfrey, DRIVE” I say, and I can hear AH and Angela breathe again; we’ve all been holding our breaths. Godfrey drives, very slowly, and the three young males lope along behind us.
I will add, that while I was sitting motionless with terror, eye to eye with the Kalihari lion, my husband was sitting just behind me, shooting photos over my shoulder.
What if we had had the flat tire in the middle of all this, we wonder? How would we change a tire? Godfrey says, you just wait until they go away. Waiting out a lion could take a LONG time, and it would seem even longer.
Then, out in front of the truck steps a female, and she has wounds. Godfrey drives very slowly, very carefully, for a wounded lion is a far less predictable lion. We are nearly giddy with relief when we finally get free of the lions, who lope along behind us for quite a while. The road is sand, and we can’t drive very fast.
My Adored Husband is totally annoyed that he ran out of film in the middle of the episode; I had film but I didn’t want to shoot while I was busy maintaining eye contact with the lion. (As it turns out, he did get one really good shot of the lion, a very beautiful shot, the lion is light gold against the white wheat of the background, and I love the shot.) The adreneline is still pumping. We made it to the airstrip just in time, in spite of the time we spent with the Kalihari lions.
Time to say goodbye to Godfrey, climb aboard our last little Cessna and leave the bush. What a way to go! Our flight to Maun is uneventful. Maun is a funny little airport, very small. We find a couple gift shops – we haven’t been spending anything out in the bush – and we deliver a message to Afro-Ventures from Godfrey, telling them he needs more information on his next safari. He has a full contingent of seven for the safari, a reverse of ours, starting in the Kalihari, just hours after we leave. They promise they will radio him the information.
We are not the same people as before we went to Botswana. We miss our camp. We loved this trip. You have to be able to endure the bumps and lumps of the overland drive to handle this particular trip, Afro Ventures’ Botswana a la Hemingway, but there are other ways, there are trips where you fly from destination to destination, and stay mostly in lodges. You would still experience much of what we experienced, just not the camping portion.
AfroVentures and CCAfrica merged, and we don’t think you can get a better combination of knowledgeable guides and gracious accomodations. Every single day of our journey exceeded expectations. It was a grand adventure. Thanks for coming along.
This lion is actually a Grumeti lion from Tanzania, but I wasn’t digital yet when we travelled Botswana.
The next morning, we take it easy, late breakfast, get all packed up and are ready for our short trip to the airstrip. Our pilot is Collin McAlister, again, which we find delightful. And this time, I don’t even feel the least bit claustrophobic. I LIKE flying this way, where you stow your own bag, you get on, fly, get off, grab your bag – it is SO efficient!
This flight is totally different from the last one, in that we go from the lushness of the Okavango Delta into the dry Kalihari. Now the Kalihari airstrip seems remote enough when we see Godfrey there to meet us, but we still have a four hour drive in front of us to the Deception Valley camp site. Godfrey has put the canvas top over the wagon which protects us from the hottest part of the sun, but still we can see out.
Godrey points out to us the tiny melons growing along the side of the road, and says that the lions eat them for water, as there is no source of water in the middle of the desert. There were some pumps, but there was an earthquake and the pipes broke. Later, on one of our game drives, we see a crew out in the middle of way-far-out-nowhere, and they are repairing the pipes so that one day the water holes will function again. We also see a tiny green desert hibiscus flower.
We have never seen such a bleak landscape. It is hard to believe that this land can support any life at all, but . . . Godfrey shows us wonders. One of the first is an entire herd of gigantic male kudus, very large deer-like animals with beautiful twisted antlers. They can bound over very high fences, and make it look easy. We saw this, on the long drive to our camp site, the fences were over 7 feet high, and these huge antelope sailed over at a gallop. It takes our breath away.
We also saw ostrich, many of them, male and female, and they always run away when we get close. When they run, they really bounce from side to side, and look very comical, like ballerinas running off-stage.
We have to stop several times to go through gates into the Kalihari game reserve. We want to see the lions, the lions of the Kalihari, the great, very wild lions we have heard about. We don’t see any on the four hour ride to our camp, but we have seen so much that it hardly matters. And we are grateful to sink into our familiar beds in our familiar tents, to have a hot shower, and a rest before the afternoon game drive.
As we come into camp, John and Richard are leaving in the big truck, to go get water. We use water very sparingly, but supporting life out on the desert means you have to bring in everything. John and Richard will drive a couple hours to the water station, will fill and drive back. The water is a little red. We don’t drink it, and we keep our mouths shut when we shower.
During our late afternoon game drive, we see a Cape Fox running through a herd of steinbok, and just as the light is failing, Godfrey spots a cheetah walking through the grass a few hundred yards away. We watch until darkness falls and we can’t see it any longer.
By this time, our ears have adjusted and we can understand Godfrey almost perfectly. When he says the steinbok dig for “tubas”, we know it is not musical instruments, but tubers. When he says “maybe he feign-ed illness, I don know”, we understand that maybe Paul was sick and maybe he wasn’t. We know that the “red boo boo shirke” is the red breasted shrike. We have come to admire and respect Godfrey immensely. He has so much knowledge of the animals and birds and trees and flowers, and also he manages the staff so well, keeps them operating smoothly under very extreme conditions AND keeps all the equipment well maintained.
We admire his driving ability. You would have to see the roads we are on to understand, the narrow, one lane, unpaved roads. Sometimes rocky, mostly sandy and always rutted and full of holes. In the Kalihari, there is the additional challenge of aardvark holes. The aardvark loves digging in the roads, as the roads are clear of brush. But aardvarks dig HUGE holes.
Back in camp, the lanterns are glowing in front of our tents, Dorcas meets us with hot washcloths, and oh, glory, there is a huge full moon rising over our camp. Here we are in the Kalihari desert, and we never want to leave.
I DO miss the sound of the elephants and hippos, and I don’t hear any lions. Even the birds are quieter here, no owls. It is very, very quiet. And then, there is that huge, full moon. We are in heaven. For dinner that night, Sky serves chicken in peanut sauce, and oh, it is delicious. The next morning when we stop for mid-morning tea and coffee, we find he has made sandwiches with the leftovers, and we are delighted. On this morning’s game run we see mongoose, an aardwolf, and a bat-eared fox. Four days in the Kalihari, and where are the lions?
We take a full day game drive to far away places. We see a solitary giraffe, and wonder how on earth he survives? He is very old, you can tell by his very dark color, Godfrey tells us. We set up for lunch under a huge tree. Godfrey looks up, and while we don’t see a leopard, we know a leopard has been there, as there is a dessicated springbok carcass high in the tree, where the leopard left it.
We get to see the springbok springing, which is a lot like the pronking of the impala, and we see a red haartebeast, and a brown hyena, all very rare, but still, no lions. We do see lion poop, Godfrey tells us we know it is lion poop because it has fur in it.
On our way back to the camp, at the end of a long day, we have the first, and only, flat tire of our trip, and the cause is a thorn. Not just any old thorn, this thorn is as thick and strong as an iron spike. It is astonishing how fast Godfrey and Paul change the tire. The tires are big, thick, sturdy tires, and we are amazed that this is the first and only one we have had. And at the same time, we haven’t seen anyone else for hours. If we didn’t have a spare, or if we lost a tire AND a second tire, we would be very very isolated out here in the middle of the desert. It is a soboring thought. The kind of thought you don’t think before you make a trip like this or you might not make the trip at all!
We are back in camp this last night of our journey about 5, early for us, but we have been out all day, and we have to be packed to leave the next morning BY seven, in order to make it to the airstrip for our pickup.
Godfrey prides himself on being reliable, and says if you get a bad reputation for not being on time the bush pilots can refuse to do your pick ups. Not only does he deliver people promptly, but he always has tea/coffee/sodas and sandwiches available to offer to the pilots, and from talking with Collin, we know that this is exceptional and remarkable. But Godfrey is a very unusual person, and we have watched him now for two weeks, and learned that a lot of his success comes from taking his time with people, talking with them, building relationships and consensus. We kid him that one day he will probably be president of Botswana, but Godfrey says he will be happy to be president of the Tour Guide association.
The next morning we are going on the mokoro ride. The mokoro is a very narrow little canoe, and they are going out into the swamp with men who use poles to take the canoes on a shallow water safari. You don’t want to get into too deep water, as there are hippos, who are very mean and ugly when you get into their territory. They are also very fast for creatures their size, and lethal. There are also mosquitos.
All in all, I just figure I NEED a quiet morning to myself. I love my sweet husband, and from time to time I just NEED some alone time. Coffee and tea, and small cookies are delivered in a wicker basket at 6:30, even small flasks of milk. AH pours me coffee and gets ready to leave. I am looking forward to a leisurely shower, wash my hair – I know there is a hair dryer. So I go to the shower (zip zip zip zip) and then discover there is no conditioner so I have to go back into the cabin, already dripping wet (zip zip zip zip – zip zip zip zip) and I have to laugh; it is a good thing I am not in a hurry!
I spend the morning reading magazines, updating my little notebook, and I can hear voices as they sail off in front of the cabin in their little Mokoros. There are all sorts of odd noises, including a crashing sound on my tent at odd intervals. As it warms up, I sit out on my deck and meet a young monkey friend. We play a game, he bobs his head up and down and I bob back. Who is imitating whom? He scrambles up the tree, drops onto my tent and slides down, grabs another branch and within seconds is back bobbing at me. Now I understand that crashing sound!
One of the nicest things at Nxebega is that throughout the day, you can hear singing coming from various parts of the camp. There is a safe in our cabin, but since we left Victoria Falls, there have been no locks, just tent flaps – zip zip zip zip. After a while, we no longer even thought about it. Nothing is taken. We even have gotten used to the whole tent flap thing – zip down, zip sideways, step in, zip sideways, zip up. At night, you also zip the outer flaps, so then you have four zips to get in and another four to close back up. And you just do it.
At dinner this night there are two tables, as Nxebega has it’s full capacity of guests- 20 people. AH and I and Angela sit with Ashleigh and Steve, and an Italian couple. It is a lovely evening, full of great conversation. Dinner is a roasted tomato soup, a lamb tagine with couscous (which even AH loves, and he doesn’t usually like lamb) and dessert is a brownie with caramel sauce.
We love being at Nxebaga. We love the genuine hospitality and the beauty of the place. At night, you hear a tinkling sound, it is the painted green frog. Each frog has a slightly different pitch, and when they all sing together, it sounds like wind chimes, or some very modern kind of music. I just love the sound.
In the middle of the night, we can hear elephant sounds, loud loud trumpeting, more than one elephant. The next day, Steve tells us that it sounded like a bull elephant in “must”, but that when a lion attacks an elephant baby, and all the elephants wail and wail, it is truly a horrible sound. We hope never to hear such a tragic sound.