African road trip, part 2
As I type, we have a week left to our trip. A week! I’ve taken plenty of week-long vacations, but now a week feels like a blink. Twelve years in the scheming, a year in the serious planning, and now it’s almost done. We’re still here, enjoying our time in Africa, but also we’re partly there, back home, thinking about seeing friends and family, the logistics of dentists appointments, new shoes, back to school, etc. I foresee a period of adjustment to come, but in the meantime I’ll tell you more about our road trip.
After our jaunt to the north of Botswana, we restocked and headed out of Maun in a different direction, southeast, to to the Makgadikgadi Game Reserve for an overnight trip onto the Ntwetwe Pan, the flat, mineral encrusted remains of an ancient lake. We did this as part of an organized group on quad bikes, which was good fun, especially for Della who just made the age cut to be a driver. We stopped en route to see a colony of man-habituated meerkats, then drove into the pan for a delicious dinner I didn’t have to cook and a night spent under the bright stars in bedrolls (much cozier than the sleeping bags that came with our rented set up.)
Then we had an overnight in a very cushy tented camp overlooking a bend in the Boteti River, where we could drink our sundowners and watch zebra, kudu and elephants having a drink at the same time. It was very nice, although I was starting to yearn for hot running water and WiFi over the bucket showers and aesthetically pleasing tents I found so charming mere weeks ago, a sure sign I’ve been at this traveling thing too long.
From there we drove into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and here I had a bit of a pause. It occurred to me that having survived ten months of travel with very little incident (aside from a few fast moving tummy bugs) perhaps we were pushing our luck to be camping in a remote reserve the size of Denmark, with a long list of predators (lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog) and an even longer list of venomous snakes. In fact, the very first animal we saw here was a big, black snake slithering across the road. Wouldn’t it just figure to have something go wrong at the end of all this? But I read “The Cry of the Kalahari” by Delia and Mark Owens when I was sixteen, which chronicled the seven years the two spent in the CKGR studying the habits and adaptations of lions and brown hyenas, and their descriptions of the vast landscape and the animals that lived there stuck. I really wanted to see it for myself.
We spent three days working our way across the reserve. The first night we spent in Deception Valley, where the Owen’s lived and worked, and it was just lovely. That day we saw two cars. The next day, driving to Passarge Valley, we saw three. The next we saw none and my ears rang from the silence. Sadly, we saw no lions with the famous black manes- we have bad self-drive lion juju, apparently- although we saw some enormous lion tracks and heard them, most thrillingly one evening just as I was starting to cook dinner. He sounded close, but thanks to the Owen’s book, which I re-read last year for good measure, I know that lion roars can travel five miles in the desert. We kept an eye on the springbok and gemsbok quietly grazing nearby; they were never alarmed, so we weren’t either.
As bad as our lion juju was, we continued to have good luck with wild dogs, and saw a pack of ten at a water hole. We were thrilled and triumphant when Della spotted a leopard on a drive; they are very difficult to find even with a guide. Our other exciting animal sighting was bat eared foxes, which were new to us, trooping across the plains in small groups using their gigantic ears to listen for grubs under the soil.
The Owens were kicked out of Botswana for reporting on the devastation that cattle fences were causing to the wildebeest migration in the southern portion of the Kalahari, and that produced some outcry over scientists having the freedom to report their findings and whatnot and international backlash. That attention is possibly what saved the CKGR from the development ideas- mining and cattle- that were bouncing around twenty years ago, so that bumbling tourists like us could drive through it today. Thankfully, we did so without incident.
Less lucky are the San people who have been removed from the Kalahari, where they lived a nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle for hundreds of years in balance with the desert. We had a two hour walk with a small family of “Bushmen”- father, daughter and her children- and they showed us how they made fire (with two pieces of hard wood and soft wood, dry grass and a pinch of sand) how they dug roots for medicine and tubers for water/face wash/sunscreen. It was eye opening. As a result of a lawsuit, the San have been told they can go back to the desert if they want to, but they can’t hunt, which means they really can’t go back and hope to survive. Now the San live a strange in-between existence, rapidly losing their traditional stories and knowledge that let them survive in the desert for so long, but not yet integrated into the modern world. Isn’t this a story that has been told before with uprooted Native Americans and Australia’s Aborigines? The father’s collection of crude, definitely non-traditional, tattoos were a testament of the six months he spent in jail for killing a springbok, which he said cured him forever of the desire to hunt under the radar.
After that educational but sobering encounter, we started a string of long driving days, crossing the border to Namibia, and then driving to the coastal town of Swakupmond, a surreal town sandwiched between desert and the Atlantic. German influences from it’s days as a colony are still apparent in the architecture, the selection at the bookstore, and schnitzel and wursts on our dinner menu. Our big draw here was the Living Desert Tour that friends did last year (hi Frits!) which revealed to us all the life that lives under the empty looking sand. Termites that feed on collected seeds and leaves carried to the desert on the wind, lizards that feed on the termites, spiders and snakes that feed on the lizards and so on. Given our past experiences with the two-horned chameleons in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, I knew our people would be as excited by the little creatures as they had been by the big ones, and they were.
But then we had to get back in the car, to get to our reservation at Sosusvlei, the towering dunes of sand that are the must-see thing in Namibia. The most desirable time for photography is first thing in the morning, and if you stay within the park gates as we did you can start your 65 km drive to the dunes earlier than the folks staying outside the gates. Still, we just laughed when the lady checking us in at 6:30pm told us we could start driving at 5:45am. We were beat. We slept in through many engines starting and car doors shutting, and started out instead at 8:00. Then, we climbed a dune, we ran down a dune, we accumulated lots of soft red sand in our shoes and pants, but I can’t say we were as excited by it all as we ought to have been. We needed a rest to regain some enthusiasm.
Which we’re getting now at our next stop, the NamibRand Family Hideout, on the vast, gorgeous, privately held NamibRand Nature Reserve. Here we have a little old restored farmhouse with a bitsy watering hole just off the shady verandah where we can sit, do school work, catch up on journals, sort photos (and write blog posts!) all while watching shifts of gemsbok, springbok and ostrich come by for a drink. I did a load of laundry by hand earlier in the yard, watched warily by six gemsbok, and it dried lickety split in the desert air.
Of course, our remote, solar powered stopping place doesn’t have a phone signal or internet. We’ve been exceptionally challenged in that regard these past few weeks, not that I expected to have WiFi in the Kalahari, but Namibia is proving to be even emptier and less connected than Botswana. Something dire could have happened to a Kardashian and we wouldn’t even know it! Which is all to say, it may be a while before I can get this posted. This, along with an update on Legoman’s adventures and a round up of all our facts and figures that Miles has been recording so faithfully. The end of fouroffthebeatenpath is nigh! Thanks for following along!