Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Hemingway Safari: Moremi & Nxabexa (Part 8)

On the next morning’s game run, we see TWO cheetas, and oh my, are they lovely. They pose for us, get up and walk around for us. Well, not really for us, but as if we aren’t there, which is what we really like. We watch as long as we can, and then go watch the hippos.

For lunch, Sky has fixed vegetable crepes. Now is this living, or what? That afternoon, we go to the other side of that rickety bridge to game hunt. As we near the Gametrackers lodge, we see two little boys walking along. They stop Godfrey and ask “have you seen lions?” These guys DON’T want to see lions, they are afraid of the lions. Godfrey assures them we haven’t seen anything between them and the village. They are barefoot, and I hope they can run really fast if they see the lion.

When we return, we have a guest for dinner, Natalie, who is taking over the camp site with her crew on the next day, for another touring group. It is fun having a fresh face, and fresh stories to hear around the dinner table. Sky has fixed roast beef with fried rice, a green salad and pears poached in port!

Early the next morning, Godfrey hands us vouchers for our flights and for our stay at Nxebega Lodge. We drive over the rickety bridge one last time (I’m praying my way over this bridge every time we cross) and leave Moremi, heading toward an air strip. We get there a few minutes early, and watch our little plane arrive, with Collin, our pilot. First he shows us on a map where we will be flying, and goes over a few safety rules. We stow our bags and climb in – it is a Cessna 210 and only seats four comfortably, although two more could crowd into the very back.

Collin is one of the happiest people I have ever met – he has a sandwich and soda which Godfrey has offered him, and then we take off. This is the part of the trip I have dreaded, the flight in the small plane, but Collin McAlister is very confidence inspiring. He is small and lean, and one of those people we have met, one of many, who loves Africa and loves what he is doing. Mostly, his air service is like a taxi, taking eco-tourists from remote airstrip to remote airstrip. I’m not at all worried about his competence, but I DO find myself feeling a little claustrophobic once we get in the air. I shut my eyes, lean back, pray for a calm spirit, and within minutes, all is well.

I really love taking photos of the changing landscape. In a mere 45 minutes, we see Nxebexa spelled out in sandbags, and we land. Pick up our bags, say goodbye to Collin and meet Tsabo, who is waiting with the jeep to pick us up and take us to the lodge. At the lodge, we are met with hot washcloths, a refreshing big glass of guava juice, and a warm welcome.

Steve, the manager, takes us to our cabins, we drop our bags and come back for lunch, which, once again, has been held late for us. At this point, however, we understand how very gracious this is, as lunch is most often served at 11:30 and tea at 3 or 3:30, so when they hold lunch late for us, it puts the staff behind on setting up for tea.

Lunch includes pizza! It is breakfast food and lunch food, and there is both a buffet AND they are asking us what we would like from the kitchen. There is so much good stuff on the buffet, pizza, good vegetables, salads, etc, and we are just fine without special ordering anything.

Every now and then, you can look at life and see a pivotal moment. Our time at Nxebega was pivotal on our journey. Until now, we are just awed by the total experience. At Nxebega, we begin to understand more clearly that something unusual is happening in our lives. That “x” after the “n” in Nxebega is actually not an “x” as we say it in English, but a glottal stop. Most English speakers actually pronounce it Na’ah-beh-ha.

As AH and I sit down to eat our lunch, Anne comes by to chat with us, hospitably, as is the custom in these very small, intimate lodges. We ask her to join us, and have a 15 minute conversation. We learned a lot in that 15 minutes. Anne had a grant to study the impact of high end/eco tourism on the environment, and has been comparing that impact in Nepal, Antarctica and Botswana. You can see by her interactions with Steve, the manager, and the staff, that she has fallen totally in love with Botswana, and she has misgivings about eco-tourism.

Botswana’s focus on high end tourism, protecting the game to attract tourists and providing luxurious surroundings to cosset them as opposed to the Kenya model, going for the groups and high volume travel, is enlightened, but Anne has some reservations about the impact on the Botswanan people. For example, she says, none of the tourists take the time to learn even a few words in Setswana. They address all the help in English.

Just the night before, AH had asked Godfrey for a few words, and, thank God, wrote them down. He has even used them – saying hello and thank you in Setswana, but now I try really hard to learn them, too, and feel really really really bad that I haven’t. Other places we go, we speak the languages, or at least a few phrases. How could we have been so rude? Listening to Anne is fascinating.

Steve, the manager of the lodge joins us too (this is one of the amazing things about the hospitality in Botswana, this kind of personal time and attention) and we learn SO much that puts our experiences in perspective. One of the neatest things of all is that almost every time we ask the question “How did you get here?” we got an answer that knocked our socks off. When I asked Steve how he got there, he laughed and said “I fought and clawed my way to be here!” Later, when we had another opportunity to chat, we learned that he has worked in many places around the world, born in South Africa, but loves Botswana and wants to be a part of it’s future. And this is what we are beginning to learn, from Godfrey and his family, from Steve, and Ashleigh, and Anne, from the kitchen workers, from the game trackers, from the gate keepers and the soldiers – they love Botswana, and they believe in the future of Botswana, and will fight and work their bottoms off to be a part of what they believe, with all their hearts, will be Botswana’s future success.

What we didn’t know, until just minutes later, was that this was Anne’s last day. As we were exploring Nxebega, we heard singing, and when we found it, at the entrance to the lodge, we found Anne being seranaded by the Nxebega staff, singing they love her and will miss her. Anne was sitting on the jeep waiting to take her to the air strip, and sobbing. As we watched the very heartfelt farewells, we believed with all our hearts that Anne is another one of the true believers, who will be back to do her part to ensure that Botswana has a positive future.

Physically, let me tell you what Nxebega looks like. It is stunning. It looks a lot like the Florida Everglades, it is swampy and marshy and full of life. In the middle of a hot and arid country, a river flows great volumes until it just disappears. Most rivers run into the ocean; this river flows into a desert and evaporates.

We were visiting at the end of the rainy season, when it is all greatly green and watery, and it is nothing short of stunningly beautiful. Think palm trees and palmettos, think high grasses and lots and lots of wildlife. Herds of elephants, giraffe, baboons, leopards, cheetahs, lions, and oh, that is just the beginning. The area is really known for it’s beautiful birds!

We have a tent with a wooden floor, covered with coir carpeting. To get into the bath area, which is open to the out of doors, you have to unzip the two zippers of the inner flap and the two zippers of the outer flap. If you don’t keep these zipped, you have flies, or snakes or . . . baboons! You might have something else, thirsty or hungry! So you very conscientiously zip zip zip zip every time you need to go into the toilet/shower/sink/ dressing room area.

They have a generator, like at Savute, it is buried and soundproofed with sandbags, so that you can’t hear it. The generator comes on at 5 in the morning and goes off at 11:00 at night. Your bedside lights are run off batteries, so you CAN use them after 11, but you run down the batteries if you do. Besides, we are so exhausted every day that it is lights out for us by 9:30 or 10:00 every night. We have a terrace on our tent, looking out over the swamp. And a beautiful shower, Nxebega is SO clean. No insects in our tent, not a smudge. Lots of great magazines to read, and materials about Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. There is even a very good gift shop, with lots of fun things.

While we are picking up a few things, we talk more with Steve and Ashleigh about eco-tourism, about the politics in an emerging country, and about the difficulty of maintaining a resource intensive luxurious bush lodge way out in the middle of nowhere. All supplies have to be brought in from Maun, a safari jumping off place. Much of the produce is brought into Maun from South Africa. They never know for sure what they will get or not get, so their menu planning has to be flexible, and they have to be able to fix a lot of things themselves. The employees often come from far away, and they live right at the lodge, and go into Maun, or home only every now and then.

Keeping trained employees is a constant concern. One time, Steve, the manager, was going into Maun, 6 hours away, to pick up supplies and had a breakdown with his truck. As it was just a quick go-into-Maun, pick-things-up-and-come-back kind of trip, he didn’t even grab a water bottle on his way out, and ended up passing out from dehydration along the side of the road. Meanwhile, people in Maun had seen a truck a lot like his, and so everyone thought he really was in Maun. By the time someone passed him on the road and got him to a hospital, he was nearly dead. Now, he never goes anywhere without a water bottle! And a radio!

There is no electric fence around Nxebega to keep the animals out, and we are told that sometimes the game trackers go out looking and looking for leopard, and while they are out, a pair of leopards will walk right through the camp. One day recently, a family of monkeys were playing around the swimming pool and a baby monkey fell in. The monkeys were screeching and screaming and they can’t swim, so the baby was just drowning, and Steve fished it out with the skimmer.

Ashleigh, the assistant manager, says they have to keep the menus flexible. They have a two week revolving menu, but she likes to find new recipes to try so that the staff doesn’t get bored and stale. I have four of her recipes; the food at Nxebega was knock-your-socks off good! We went out for a game drive with our guide, Sami, who looked and sounded like a teacher, if teachers looked like Morgan Freeman (American actor).

We had a great time, At sundown, we stopped for drinks – and to watch the giraffes gracefully crossing the setting sun. Later our guard picks us up for dinner and we gather in the lounge, discussing the day, your game drives, etc. with the other guests.

There is a man from South Africa, with his three very lovely college-age daughters, and a South African couple, us, the Italians . . . and that’s it! Nine people. They make drinks or serve wine, and they have big servers full of hot mixed nuts. Then, dinner is served and all go into the dining room where one long table is set with candles. Dinner the first night was parsnip soup, beef sassouie (sort of stew) polenta, grilled peppers and for dessert, a walnut baklava with ginger ice cream. By the end of the ginger ice cream (total WOW) we just want to fall into our beds.

We are handed our wool covered hot water bottles on our way out. In the middle of the night, I wake up and I need to use the toilet, but I can’t find my flashlight. I’m not desperate, but I am a little scared, and I know that AH will wake up eventually, which he does, and when he goes into the bathroom (zip zip zip zip), I go too, but when he leaves he takes the light with him! I do NOT want to be alone in the bathroom with no light! It is very very dark, there is no ambient light in the sky. So I make him come back in, I finish and then zip zip zip zip, back to bed.

September 18, 2006 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Botswana, Cross Cultural, Social Issues, Travel | , , , | Leave a comment

The Hemingway Safari: Moremi (Part 7)

We are eager, we are awake early, it was barely dawn, so AH and I decided we could walk to breakfast without an escort. Just as we hit the main path to the lodge, we heard “ROOAAAAARR Roooaaaaarrrr, ROOOOOOAAAAARRRR” and I can tell you, it sounded like they were right on our heels. The earth shook! AH laughed as I nearly ran all the way to the lodge, even though Godfrey has told us not to run from lions, but to stop still and look them right in the eye. When lion roars, there is no more frightening sound on the earth. I would like to think I would have the presence of mind to stop and look one calmly in the eye, so he would know I am dominant, but when I hear that roar, my resolve melts away. I don’t think I want to find out if I am that brave.

We depart for Moremi, where we were camping once again. Savute was dry and golden, but driving into Moremi, we are passing branches of a river and ponds, and it is lush and green.

Before we get into Moremi, we have to stop at the North Gate, where two truck loads of French tourists are stopped, and have been stopped for four hours, as an impasse has developed. The entry fee to the park must be paid in Botswanan pula, but all these tourists have is American dollars. The Drifter’s guide and the gate guard have established their positions, and won’t budge. The tourists sit and swelter. Godfrey talks the gate officials into taking a promissary note from the company, saying they can collect from the company in Maun. Godfrey thinks outside the box. He sees solutions and possibilities where others see problems and dead ends.

Once he has resolved the French Tourists problems, we cross the bridge into Moremi. There aren’t a lot of times on this trip when I feared for my life, but this was one of them – and we ended up crossing this bridge several times. It was made of skinny trees, tied together. Some were stuck in the swamp we were crossing, vertically, and then the rest were tied, horizontally, together. You could hear them breaking as we crossed. The bridge was tippy. Our big truck was heavy. Godfrey knew what he was doing, but he told us that last week a rough camping truck had gone off the bridge.

There are hippos is this area, and crocodiles. I DON’T want to go off this bridge, this tippy, creaking, cracking bridge.

Now for all that I loved Savute Elephant Camp, we all agreed that we loved our own little camp as much. AH and our travelling companion are even saying they like our own camp better, and I have to agree, I really like the smallness and intimacy of our own private little camp, too. And, even better, as we drive up, lunch is all set up out under a couple trees. Sky, the cook, has joined the team, and is feeling better, and has fixed a wonderful lunch, including a curried banana salad and a rice salad and cold cuts and cheeses. We have time for lunch, time for a shower and some rest before tea and our afternoon game drive.

As we are resting, however, I can hear crashing around, and I can hear hippos grunting. Hippos have a very low, resonant grunt. Now, granted, when it is cold, sound travels, but this is the heat of the afternoon, and I hear hippos.

Oh yes, Godfrey tells us, we are near the hippo pond. Isn’t this a great camping site, one of his favorites! When we leave for our afternoon game drive, we find that the hippo pond is not 300 meters away from us! But we are in an official camp site, and we just have to trust that our tents are not on a hippo path.

Hippos are not cute. They are huge, and bad tempered, and very territorial. I really really don’t want to run into a hippo, and I don’t want a hippo to run into our tent. I love the sounds they make, though, and grow to love having them as neighbors.

We search and search for leopards and cheetas, to no avail. We see duiker, a tiny little antelope, and more zebras. We see comical Secretary birds, and marabu storks. We see lots of hippos.

Arriving back at our camp is nearly magical, driving in to see all the kerosene lamps lit and our chairs around the fireplace. A little like coming home. There is enought hot water in our shower that AH and I can both take showers, and then dinner – Sky has fixed fish curry! tiny new potatoes! Chinese snow peas! Crispy cooked carrots! And, oh my, creme caramel. Here we are in what AH calls Nowhere squared, and we are eating this incredible meal.

AH and Godfrey decide to solve some of the world’s problems over cognac, and I crawl off to my hot water bottle. We are all tucked in and sound asleep by 9:30 most nights, breathing fresh air, listening to the sounds of our neighboring hippos.

September 17, 2006 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Botswana, Cooking, Cultural, Travel | , | Leave a comment