Sunday, November 19, 2006
It's a long flight to Africa. My brother and I depart at 6 a.m., catch an 8:45 flight from Fort Lauderdale to Washington, Dulles, have a six-hour layover there, and depart on South African Air 208 at 5 p.m. After a while, dinner is served. I amuse myself with computer games -- blackjack, Invasion, poker, Volcanix, and chess (each seat has a personal flat-panel TV screen).
After the meal everyone tries to get some sleep, but it's a challenge. I doze off and am surprised when one of the attendants presents me with clear cellophane bag. It's breakfast: an egg sandwich, apple, orange juice, and M&Ms.
Monday, November 20, 2006
The TV flight map shows we're presently flying at 37,402 feet. We're over the middle of Angola, traveling at 543 miles per hour, and should land at 3:28 p.m., 2 hours and 11 minutes from now.
Food carts are again in the aisles. What I thought was breakfast was merely a snack. The "real" breakfast is a little more formal: tray, napkin, eggs, fruit, croissant, etc.
This photo shows a real-time image captured by a camera attached to the tail of our plane. The image can be seen on the video screens in front of us.
We land at Johannesburg about 3:30. Signs direct us expeditiously to the international transfer desk where we get our boarding passes for the flight to Windhoek, Namibia. We have about an hour and a half before the flight. Everything is going so well!
Except our travel itinerary says a representative is supposed to meet us here and help us check in with our Windhoek connection. We don't need any help, but the rep is nowhere to be found. We assume he's able to determine we made the connection ourselves.
Our hop to Windhoek is about two hours and we land at 7:15 p.m. There's a short wait at customs (isn't there always?) and we look for our bags on the carousel. Jim's green Africa Adventure bag is not among the luggage on display, nor is my large black canvas bag. We wait, but our belongings are clearly MIA. We wait in line at the baggage claim office to fill out the paperwork. The clerk tells us another South African Air flight from Johannesburg is due to arrive tomorrow morning at 8:20, but after she makes a few entries in her computer terminal and looks at the screen, the tone of her voice is not cause for optimism our bags will be found any time soon.
Meanwhile, the rep who is to meet us here finally finds us, we get in his van, and head for the Windhoek Country Club Resort and Casino. We're only minutes into the drive and he remarks, casually, that there's a little trouble at the country club. It seems there's a dispute, and the staff is on strike, and has been since last Wednesday. "So, don't be surprised if you see some people picketing at the front door."
He had that right! There's a blue and white striped tape -- sort of like the kind you see at murder scenes -- blocking entrance to the facility, there's a crowd of a dozen or two labor union people, and they're playing loud music and using one or more megaphones to announce their grievances. Police and/or militia forces are both inside and outside the building to maintain order. The picketers have pup tents erected right on the driveway, so their presence at the resort is 24/7.
I must say, the thought of unskilled or inexperienced personnel preparing our food and tending our security -- as our driver intimated -- is not very comforting.
We cross the picket line (under the tape) and check in. The place looks nearly empty. We're assigned Room 104. Almost as an afterthought, I mention that we require two single beds; one double bed is unacceptable. He assures us there are indeed two beds; they have a single bed spread over them, he explains, but it can be removed and the beds can be separated if desired.
In the room -- you guessed it -- two bed frames, but a single mattress, single top and bottom sheets, single blanket, and single spread.
We traipse back to the front desk and request another room. The attendant doesn't believe our story, so he sends us back to Room 104 with another attendant. She has trouble in the elevator. She keeps pushing the door-open button by mistake and can't figure out why the doors won't close. She's getting exasperated.
We show her the single mattress, single top and bottom sheets, single blanket, and single spread. She becomes a believer, so we return back to the front desk once again for another room assignment. We get Room 105.
Since it's Monday, it's time for us to take our malaria tablets. The tablets are to be taken with food and drink, not just drink alone. The main restaurant, the Kokerboom, serves only a sumptuous buffet, at $22 a whack, but we just want just a little something to eat so we can take our darn malaria tablets!
Happily, the country club has a second restaurant . . . and it's open (although it's already after 9:00 p.m.) . . . we can order ala carte items . . . and the price is right. It's the Shez Wov, a Chinese restaurant! We order soup followed by noodles with beef. Delicious!
JJ asks our waiter if he speaks Chinese. No, he doesn't. Jim then says he's interested to find out what language the waiters use when speaking to each other. Our server pauses a moment, then replies, "That would be English."
After our meal we look around briefly in the Desert Jewel Casino. There are 289 slot and poker machines, but it seems only a couple people are participating in the action, at two poker tables at the back of the room.
Jungle Jim, poor guy, is struggling with the remnants of a bothersome cold. He slept little to none of the time we spent on our flights, so he's an exhausted puppy, and our activities of the last two days have not aided his recovery. Probably quite to the contrary.
He goes to bed -- it's after 11 p.m. -- and I remain up to make some journal entries on my laptop. In short order JJ's gurgling, grunting, honking, and emitting all manner of strange sounds.
I complete my computering before midnight and jump into bed.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
There's just a little bit of light in the sky when my internal clock tells me I will sleep no more. JJ is still emitting an amazing variety of noises. I sit in a soft, comfortable sofa chair and contemplate events. Perhaps for this trip all the problems and inconveniences that present themselves will be crammed into the first day or two. That would be nice.
About a half hour later I part the heavy drapes at the window and look out toward the east. It's a beautiful, sunshiny day going on out there. It's probably about 6:30.
In the light of a new day I see our room is really great: it's very spacious, there's a nice desk, an easy chair, two-seat sofa, TV, safe for valuables, coffee maker, hair dryer, and the shower stall in the bathroom is worthy of a feature article in House Beautiful.
Breakfast is bountiful and delicious. I have an omelet, sausage, bacon, potatoes, onions, OJ, a fresh pastry, cheese, and a pear half.
This (photo) is the entrance to the Windhoek Country Club Resort and Casino. The resort grounds are impressive: nice swimming pool, golf course within steps of the pool, a circular man-made moving river that can be used for a leisurely float, conference facilities that will accommodate 800. This is one fancy place!
After breakfast and Jim's half-hour or so nap in an easy chair in the lobby, we return to our room. Jim lies down on his bed and is back at his gurgling and chirping in no time.
In mid-morning I decide to check with the front desk to see if our bags have arrived. Though several suitcases are in evidence, ours are not among them. The receptionist is kind enough to call the airport to get a report. Our possessions did arrive on the morning flight from Johannesburg and will be delivered here sometime this afternoon!
About 1:00 the phone rings in the room and a man on the other end announces our baggage has arrived. Moments later there's another call. A woman tells me the bag can be picked up at the front desk. One bag?
It's Jim's. The clerk says my bag may be on another bus and arrive later on.
Back in the room, Jim resumes his gurgling and I decide to take a nap, too. About 2:00 the phone rings again. My bag has finally made an appearance!
We eat lunch at the buffet. Very good! We look out the huge windows and watch storm clouds form. Birds fly about in a frenzy over the pools outside and between the tall pillars of the resort. Occasionally one walks in one of the several open doors to pick up scraps in the dining room. It's nice to have an open day in the schedule.
(At the front desk I inquired earlier about an afternoon activity, but was left with the impression anything but a drive around town might be too difficult to arrange.)
For supper we decide to return to the Chez Wove because we had such success there last night. Besides, the buffet is quite expensive. I don't want a lot to eat, so I order just an appetizer of beef slices and a serving of rice. The rice is fine. The beef, however . . . Well, let me describe it this way: each of the two-dozen or so thinly-cut, one-by-two-inch slices looks like fine lace -- with gristle as the lace -- and tiny bits of meat in between. I try for some while to harvest something eatable from the serving, but it is hopeless. It's a disappointment, particularly since last night's meal was so good.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
My internal clock wakens me in the middle of the night. I have no idea what time it is. Two o'clock maybe. Three. On prior trips I've had this happen and from those experiences I knew I wouldn't get back to sleep. But what does one do at 2 a.m.? So I decide to just lie there and think about the trip.
JJ's noises are moderating, so I assume he's getting better. Just yesterday he sounded sort of like a walrus or trumpet seal, but now I'd describe his sounds as something between an old sheep bleating and what you'd expect to hear if you stepped on a dead man's chest.
What I assume is an hour goes by, perhaps an hour and a half. The next thing I know, JJ is speaking to me: "Are you going to get up?" he inquires, as though there's a chance I'm not. I had fallen back to sleep, a deep, sound sleep.
We're met at 8:15, find the strike outside the front door has been ended, and we're driven to the other major Windhoek airport, which actually has more traffic than international airport -- all domestic flights. Shortly after 9:00 we're flying toward the Namib Desert and by 10:30 or so we're at Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp near the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
The photo shows three of the nine chalets at Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp. Ours is in the foreground.
After a little picture taking, lunch (a lamb chop and noodle salad -- that's all), and a pretty nice nap, we head out for a drive at about 5:30. (There are usually no mid-afternoon activities because it's just too darn hot!)
Our destination is Sesriem Canyon, an interesting natural attraction created by the flow of water through the rock over a period of thousands of years. I'm a little disappointed because I thought we were going to the dunes. Nevertheless, the canyon is quite interesting and I take a bunch of pictures.
Dinner doesn't begin until close to nine o'clock: beef, chicken, and a great variety of vegetables -- served buffet style -- with pudding for dessert. Very good!
Thursday, November 23, 2006
I've got to readjust my internal clock because it wakens me again in the middle of the night. I lie on the bed, the ceiling fan purrs above me, and I anticipate this morning's real wake-up call, a knock on the door at 4:30.
I shower and ready myself for a long drive to the dunes. Some of the Sossusvlei dunes, which we'll visit, are the highest in the world. One exceeds 1000 feet. Unfortunately, Jungle Jim has experienced a relapse; his cold is worse, and he chooses to skip this trip.
The sand dunes are surprisingly impressive. They're enormous! (Notice how small the tourists look -- upper right -- in the photo.)
With the early-morning sun, shadows are intense and the dune shapes and patterns are fascinating. We reach the end of the road and get out for a walk.
I'm with a fellow, Henry, and his wife from England and what I understand is one of their friends, who lives in Cape Town. And of course our guide, Felix. The five of us start out, but Henry soon tires and heads back to the Land Rover. After another fifteen minutes or so, the women decide to return to keep Henry company, so that leaves just Felix and me.
This dry lake bed is other-worldly. Sand dunes surround it. Look closely and you can see some people standing next to a dead tree in the background.
There are picture opportunities to die for and I'm running about exploiting as many of them as possible. Meanwhile, Felix comes across a friend, and the two of them quickly engage in spirited conversation.
I feel guilty being the cause of three tourists waiting for me at the Land Rover, so I signal to Felix we should head back, but he says the women made it a point to encourage me to take as much time as I want. I take another ten minutes or so, but then we return to the vehicle.
We drive about a half mile, stop, set up lunch under a big tree, and enjoy a wonderful meal "in the bush." Felix recounts scary experiences he had with animal encounters. I get the impression some of the experiences I've had were probably more scary than I imagined at the time.
We drive back to the lodge, arriving about 1:30. JJ is eating lunch and reports he's feeling much better. With him are two new guests at the camp, women, and they have a tale to tell. It seems when they went to their room (#9; JJ and I are in #3), they thought they saw something in the shower stall. Looking closer they thought it was a snake! Looking even more closely, they were sure it was a snake, and they were able to identify it in a reference book at the lodge. It was a black, spitting cobra!
Of course the staff was notified immediately and a team of staff people readied their equipment -- sticks, gasoline (snakes don't like the smell), and other paraphernalia. They searched the room from top to bottom, but could find no cobra. This, of course, was not to the liking of the two women, who were left to contemplate sleeping in the room tonight, perhaps in the company of a spitting cobra!
(Later we are told the ladies were moved to room #8, much to their relief, I'm sure.)
At 5:00 we're back at the lodge ready for our late-afternoon activity: a nature ride. It sounds boring, but turns out to be an absolute delight. We drive slowly along the dirt road looking for animals and birds. Felix points out interesting features in the scenery.
We stop at a tree with a mass of social weaver bird nests; one branch was so loaded with nests is fell to the ground. We look at animal droppings and Felix identifies the animal.
For our sundowner Felix finds a hill maybe a hundred feet high. We ascend to the top. Treats are laid out for us and we enjoy a drink (mine: bitter lemon). As the sun sinks into the horizon, the western sky turns red.
We watch as the bright red darkens, then see a sliver of a moon appear. Felix tells us about some of his childhood experiences: when he was bitten by a scorpion -- three times, when he reached his hand into a bird's nest (to get a bird) and retrieved a snake instead, his close-up encounter with a lion, a scary confrontation with elephants, his experiences as cook, bar tender, and rugby player, gatherings of the men in the community (women not allowed) around a fire to talk of hunting tales and to impart family values to their young sons.
We look off in any direction -- a full 360 degrees -- and we see no other human beings or human activity. It's as though the three of us are the only people on Earth. It was truly a memorable moment. Perhaps the most impressive of the trip!
It's after 10:00 as JJ and I prepare our belongings for tomorrow's departure. We're about ready to go to bed and Jim says, "What was that?"
"What was what?" I respond.
"I thought I saw something streak along the floor."
I think to myself: it's just his imagination. Probably the snake story is getting him to see things that aren't there. Then he says, "There it is again!" And so the search is on.
In a few minutes we discover we have a house guest: a little brown mouse. We try to chase it out the door. No luck. After some time we decide to just forget about him, so we hop in our beds. Forgetting about something is not something you can decide to do very successfully, however.
Then I think maybe we can pull the mosquito netting tightly around the beds and thereby circumvent any in-bed visits by our guest. We have to poke a couple of pillows in some gaps, but that's exactly what we do. The netting reduces the effectiveness of the ceiling fan, but at least our mouse worries are over. It's close to 11:00 before we get to sleep.
Friday, November 24, 2006
We're ready to depart Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp at 8:15 for a short drive to the air strip. We fly to Windhoek, where the plane is refueled. At about 9:45 we fly on to Maun, Botswana; wait an hour or so; and finally fly on to the Jao landing strip in the Okavango Delta. A forty-five-minute ride in a Land Rover gets us to our destination, Kwetsani Camp.
After getting our room assignment (#2) we start out on a game drive. Almost immediately we encounter a couple of herds of elephant. A few of the adults don't like our intrusion and turn as if they're about to charge. They don't charge.
Lightning in the east tells us a rain storm is on its way. By the time we're back at the lodge, the wind has picked up and it looks like we're in for a real battering. We lower the curtains and prepare for a downpour.
The dinner table (photo) is moved from outside in and dinner is served about 7:00. The wind makes for a good blow, but the rain never materializes here. We see it coming down in sheets to the east, however.
I make some entries in my journal, but bugs in the room are a little too sociable for my tastes. I turn off my computer and jump into bed before 10:00. Mosquito netting keeps the bugs at bay.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
I again awaken before our wake-up call, but it's only five or ten minutes before I see our guide, Maipa, coming up the walkway. It's 6 a.m.
A little after 7:00 we're on the Land Rover with two other guests, a couple from Switzerland. The husband speaks English pretty well, but the wife speaks it very well. They are awfully nice people. He has all sorts of lenses for his camera, and it's clear photography is his passion.
We see a number of elephants, but have an amazing close-up meeting with lions (photo). Maipa navigates our vehicle so we're no more than about fifteen feet from two female lions and two cubs. After a while we discover two males are "hiding" in the bushes a few feet away. The smell of a fresh kill is in the air and the lions' stomachs are stuffed to capacity.
Maipa radios to the other camp vehicle which arrives on the scene in a matter of minutes. A third vehicle joins us. It is filled with Children-in-the-Wilderness kids, pencils and notebooks at the ready to record the sighting.
At a hippo pool, we get out of the vehicle and walk toward the water's edge. I've heard hippos are the cause of more deaths than any African animal, so I'm rather uncomfortable getting chummy with these animals.
Maipa assures me the critters will stay in the water. About a dozen feet from the water I look to my left and announce: "Look, a crocodile!" It is sunning itself, but plunges into the deep with our approach. Moments later I exclaim: "Look, an elephant!" It's probably 75 yards away.
We watch a momma hippo and her baby at the other side of the river, a hippo nearby, and two other groupings of the animals. It's a strange sensation to be so close to them, knowing how dangerous they are.
Back at our room we hear some fairly loud crunching sounds. They're coming from between our room and the room next door. It's an elephant, munching the foliage right under the walkway. We watch for a few minutes, then head for brunch.
The meal is served at 10:30 and it's absolutely delicious. I have an omelet, bacon, potato casserole, tomato and cheese, cheese and crackers, and three glasses of OJ. Marvelous!
We have free time until 4:00, so I take some pictures and catch up with the journal. JJ decides to use the time for a nap. I think that's such a good idea, I follow suit. But first, a shower in the outside shower stall. What a treat! There's plenty of hot water, the sun is bright overhead.
There's even a rainbow visible inches away from me, in the mist of the shower! There is no drain; Just cracks between the floor boards, and the water just drops down to the ground maybe eight feet below. A cool breeze comes along every now and then for variety, so the warm water is appreciated even more. How pleasant.
We meet for tea at 4:00 and are back in the Land Rover at 5:00. The drive is somewhat uneventful. We see a couple of elephants, but at a distance. We revisit the lion sighting location and find the two lionesses and cubs are gone; in their place is papa lion.
We revisit the hippos for our sundowner. On the drive back to camp it's dark enough to activate the search light and Maipa sweeps the beacon left and right, but nothing of any significance is spotted.
Another delicious dinner: chicken, various vegetables, and a strawberry-like custard for dessert.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Again, I awaken a few minutes before our wake-up call, this time: 5:30. By 6:30 or so, JJ and I are aboard a mokoro with a poler and are gliding across the water (JJ is in front of me in the photo).
It's a pleasant ride skimming at surface level, knifing through the grass and reeds. The water lilies are beautiful. The sky is partly cloudy, but it's warm.
We cover perhaps a quarter mile before the channel opens enough for our small craft to turn around for the trip back. That's all there is to our journey -- out and back -- but it was very nice.
We load ourselves back in the Land Rover for another safari drive. Within minutes we receive a radio message that a lion has been sighted near the lodge, and moments later we see him maybe a half mile away. Maipa maneuvers our vehicle so the animal is walking directly toward us.
The king of beasts doesn't deviate any from his course and passes within 20 or so feet of Jim. Maipa races the Land Rover ahead of the lion once again, and this time leo passes within six feet of me. I video the whole episode and afterwards notice goose bumps have risen to the occasion all up and down my arms. One more time Maipa places us so the lion is heading right at us. He passes very close to JJ. It's a terribly thrilling encounter.
Five or ten minutes later we get another radio message that a leopard has been spotted (pun intended). We race full tilt to the site and are treated to a spectacular view of the animal, lying comfortably up ten feet or so in a tree (photo).
Two other camp visitors and I begin frantic picture taking, but JJ seems puzzled. After several minutes, Maipa asks him if he'd like the vehicle moved so he can get a better view. "I can't see him," Jim confesses. It seems he was looking around on the ground and didn't notice the leopard was in direct view maybe 30 feet away.
Along with sightings of a ring-tailed mongoose or two, a monitor lizard, and a few other critters, our morning drive is an unqualified success! It is sensational!
A monkey stares at me from his perch up in a tree.
Lunch (again absolutely delicious!) is served at 10:30. Shortly after noon we are driving to the airstrip for a short 20-minute flight to Stanley's Camp. As we get in a Land Rover at the airstrip, the plane that transported us swings about and prop spray kicks up a cloud of dirt and small gravel. It feels like we're in a sand storm!
At the camp we're assigned Room #1. Then at 4:00 we gather for "high tea" and a half-hour or so later begin another safari drive. It's really somewhat boring for an hour or two, but then we spot what must have been close to 40 baboons. There are adults, kids, and babies scampering around, and we watch and photograph them for some while.
Not long after that we see some buffaloes (photo), maybe three dozen of them. Then, nearby we spot about 20 giraffes. It's a strange gathering as the two species merge, then separate, then move on.
We enjoy a sundowner and then head back to the lodge. It's now dark and a spotter (who has come with us) shines his powerful light from left to right, up and down. Amazingly, he's able to pick out an owl, spring hare, mongoose, scrub hare, and genet.
Dinner is served late. I have lentil soup, beef, impala, bean casserole, some other vegetables, and a tasty cake-like dessert. Writing in my journal, I don't get to bed until after 11:30.
Monday, November 27, 2006
I'm awake but not out of bed when we receive our wake-up call. A gentle voice calls out "Knock, knock." Then once again, "Knock, knock."
"Thank you," I reply. JJ is already up and is taking a shower. (I had mine yesterday.)
Breakfast is served at 7:00 and at shortly after 7:30 we're on our way to meet the Elephant Guardian, Douglas Alan Groves (Living with Elephants).
What an elephant encounter it is! We learn fascinating pachyderm facts; get to examine Marula, Jabu, and Thembi close-up and touch them; and observe their behavior. It's an amazing experience. (Meet the elephants.)
Douglas has trained the beasts to follow up to 75 commands, and they are very obedient. We watch them eat, lie down, play in the mud, and even engage in their bathroom habits (photo: dung beetles are flying all about above the droppings in literally seconds!).
On a walk I'm able to put out my hand and guide an elephant when it rests its trunk on my palm. I've led an elephant around by the nose!
Then Marula, Jabu, and Thembi are sent off in one direction, while we proceed in another, and in a few moments we come upon a lovely spot under a gigantic tree. There, a bountiful and delicious lunch has been set out for us. We dine, and as we do, the elephants join us for a meal themselves ten yards or so away.
Jungle Jim is on the left. I'm on the right. (Photo by Douglas Alan Groves.)
I'm very surprised how heavy the trunks are! (Photo by Douglas Alan Groves.)
All too soon our elephant experience concludes and we must return to camp. The elephants wave to us with their trunks. Parting is with real regret, however, as our time with these animals has been such a joy!
I hope the video comes out. Particularly the sequence where one elephant takes off my hat and puts it on his own head, then puts it back on my head. And the shot where I get a big, wet kiss from the end of an elephant's trunk. The morning with Marula, Jabu, and Thembi (and of course Douglas) is absolutely priceless!
I write in my journal. Then I take a shower. The water is nice and hot and the shower head is a big, round one that delivers a grand flow. Half way through, the hot water runs out and I try to rinse with cold. I'm almost done when the hot water returns, warm as ever.
Since JJ is still battling his cold (fortunately, his night sounds have subsided considerably), he opts for a nap. His emanations now are little more than mild grunts and occasional gurgling.
At 4:30 we head out on another safari drive. The search for leopard is unsuccessful, but we find a couple of male lions (photo) in the bush.
They eye us intently, then wander off. We follow. They don't like us being nearby so they stroll off again. We pursue them once more, but they move further into the bush and we give up the chase.
Moments later we happen on a herd of elephants. They don't like us either. A couple of them trumpet their indignation. One flairs its ears and starts to charge. It's a mock charge.
After our sundowner, we begin a night drive and see a giant eagle owl, an African wild cat, a gannet, and a spotted hyena. I'm amazed at how well the guide and his assistant are able to pick out animals in the darkness, just by sweeping a spotlight back and forth.
The meal, featuring Botswana beef, is excellent.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Wake-up call: 6:00, breakfast: 6:30, and we're in the Land Cruiser at 7:20. The game drive is uneventful, but I enjoy so much being in Africa. The day is sunny and there's a sweet breeze in the air.
Back at the camp, we prepare for departure, then at 10:20 head to the air strip. A plane is to pick us up at 11:00, but it's 15 minutes late. We get aboard for the 40-minute flight to Savuti Camp, but find several intermediary stops have been added to the itinerary -- Mombo Camp and Kings Pool Camp -- and the travel time is an hour, forty-five minutes. We are met by our guide, Ronald, and the drive to the camp takes about a half hour.
After a nice lunch, we have some free time and I make entries in my journal and take a shower (it's another outside shower and it's simply wonderful!). JJ naps.
High tea begins at 4:00, and the safari drive commences a half hour later. It's relatively uneventful, but there's a fine lion encounter (photo). It's a male and we park maybe 15 feet away from where he's resting.
He eyes us with what seems to be determined intensity. His stare lasts for several minutes, then he raises his head, flops it down, and takes a nap. I guess Land Rover visits are nothing unusual for him.
We get back to the camp late, maybe 8:30. Dinner is served at 9:00. It's delicious!
I'm tuckered when we get back to our tent. There's no time for any entries in the journal. I go straight to bed!
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Wake-up call: 5:00. Light breakfast: 5:30. Drive: 6:00.
This may be a fish eagle. Or it may not be.
There are no major animal encounters, but how could there be? Nothing, it would seem, short of a real attack by elephant or lion, could compare with the experiences we've had in the last week. Anticlimax is to be expected.
We return to camp about 10:30, have brunch at 11:00, and then have a good spell of free time. As I write this, JJ is already making little, muted snoring sounds. I expect to be doing the same momentarily.
I sleep for over two hours. I needed the rest; I think I had a sleep deficit.
Up at 3:00, I take another wonderful outdoor shower, watching the animals as I do so. Zebras cautiously advance to the water hole for a drink about a hundred yards from my vantage point. Then cape buffalo march into view and the gathering of zebras parts, just like it's a parade. Meanwhile, dozens of impala dance by the zebras and are enjoying a turn at the water. It's fascinating to watch.
Tea at 4:00, safari drive at 4:30. The routine in familiar. But the sights are ever-changing. This time we run into a herd of elephants, perhaps 40 of them. Ronald drives the Land Rover off the road and directly in front of the animals, turns off the engine, and we wait.
In moments the elephants are flowing by us on both sides of the vehicle. There are babies in the bunch, so the adults are very protective, but there is no trumpeting or charges. It's a thrilling encounter.
We proceed to a marsh area an hour's drive from camp. We see many hippos there and a couple of crocs, too. One of the hippos (photo) is very active and puts on a good show. He splashes about and opens his huge mouth as far as it will go. I got some great pictures.
Dinner is served at 8:30. Delicious! And for music we're treated to a bunch of hyenas laughing and chattering. At 10:00 I'm making entries in my journal. Hyenas can be heard in the distance, with their evil-sounding laugh. At 10:30 I'm asleep. (JJ was asleep before 10:00.)
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Once again: Wake-up at 5:00, light breakfast at 5:30, game drive at 6:00.
The highlight this time is a lion (photo), male, drinking at a pool of water. After we get there, he continues to lap up water for perhaps five minutes, then slowly gets up and strolls away. We follow. He finds a shady spot under a tree near the road and plunks himself down. We take more photos.
In the distance we spot a black-backed jackal trotting along toward us, obviously oblivious to the lion's presence. The jackal comes to an abrupt stop when he sees the lion, but doesn't back off. Instead, he maneuvers so our vehicle, and another which has joined us, are between himself and the lion. Cautiously he approaches the lion, apparently in search of scraps left over from the lion's meal. There are no scraps, so the jackal moves along to the watering hole for a drink himself.
The two guests with us this morning in the Land Rover (a husband and wife who live in London) are bird fanciers. The guy seems to know birds as well as Ronald does, he can spot them at 200-300 yards, and he takes lots of photos.
We're back at 10:30. Brunch is at 11:00 (a carrot and pineapple salad includes artichokes!). Then: more free time!
To my disappointment, the sore throat I had yesterday morning seems to be morphing into a cold, despite immediate treatment with doses of Vitamin C. I thought I had this nipped in the bud. Now JJ is complaining about my snoring sounds!
I make some entries in the journal, take a long nap, and have another refreshing outdoor shower. This time there are no animals to view as I suds down, however. The temperature is about 100 degrees.
The evening game drive is relatively uneventful. There are a couple of elephant encounters and some mock charges, but the highlight is an incident during the sundowner.
It's after seven, almost completely dark, and JJ notices a spotted hyena (photo) is walking along about 100 feet from where we are. I grab my camera and walk toward the road in hopes of getting a photo, in spite of the poor light.
The hyena walks onto the road and then walks toward me. I'm looking in my lens finder and I'm not sure how far away he is. When I lower the camera, I see the critter is probably 50 feet from me, and I'm 50 feet from the Land Rover!
He then veers off into the brush. Thank goodness! He circles around behind us, but only for a brief look, and he moves away into the darkness. Quote a thrill!
This evening's dinner is served in the BOMA, an area only a few paces from the usual dining area. It has a dirt floor and is enclosed with vertical branches that are about eight feet tall. Very rustic. Very African.
Friday, December 1, 2006
Five o'clock wake-up, 5:30 light breakfast, game drive at 6:00. The highlight this time is . . . um . . . ah . . . well, I guess there really isn't a highlight. I see a banded mongoose catch a mouse, and we watch it scurry into its den with its catch. We stop and look at the weathered skull of an elephant and its tusks. (Photo: a tusk can be quite heavy.) But these aren't particularly exciting sightings.
Bugs, bites, and sunburn. There are a lot of bugs, flies mostly, but mosquitoes, too, and I use a towel from the camp to shoo them away. My shooing is not too effective, I discover. I'm left with a dozen or so bites.
In the other camps we used vehicles with a roof or cover above our heads. Not this time. The Land Rover is open, so the sun is always upon us. JJ and I cover our arms and legs and use head covering, but the sun's rays find us nevertheless. We're both sun burned. Jim gets it worst on his ears. I get it on my nose.
Brunch includes, believe it or not, calamari! (I didn't sample it.) We pack our bags, which are picked up at 11:00, and we depart for the air strip at 12:30. Our flight to Maun is a little early; we're in the air at 1:10.
At Maun the departure board shows our flight to Johannesburg, BA 211, is delayed from 3:00 to 3:30. Status is shown as "OK." We go through customs and wait. On the board, "BA211" starts to blink. After a while the departure is revised to 3:45 and the status is listed as "DEL," not an encouraging sign.
We finally load and our flight departs about 4:05 p.m., a little over an hour later than scheduled.
In Johannesburg there's a congestion of planes landing and we are diverted into a holding pattern for two cycles. When we finally land, it seems like we travel 20 miles taxiing.
Then we load onto a bus that transports us to the terminal. There are long lines going through customs and it's about an hour before we're processed and get our baggage.
Knowing time is of the essence, we grab a cart for our luggage and head for the South African Air check-in counter. When we find we have to use an escalator, we abandon the cart and carry our bags. On the departure level we find South African Air is at the other end of the terminal. There's a line waiting to get to the counter and when we get through it, we're told to report to Counter 27 or 28. We head that way, but then are redirected to another entry point. We go to that spot only to find it's blocked.
At this point I'm getting a little agitated. "Screw it," I say out loud in exasperation, and I move the barriers and proceed to Counter 27. The man there is working on something and appears unwilling to look up. We go to Counter 28, but there's a group of three or four attendants busily engaged in what seems to be idle conversation. They completely ignore us.
Finally we get the attention of someone who moves us to Counter 30, where he takes our tickets and passports and begins keying information in his computer terminal. By this time, it's a little before 7:00 p.m. and the flight is due to depart at 7:20!
The man leaves his position and consults with an associate, then approaches us. "I just want to break this to you as easily as I can," he begins. "The flight is closed and you can't get on it."
"But what about our reservation," we protest. We're told the seats were sold to some people on standby.
"We didn't know if you were coming or not," he explains, lamely. Then he searches computer records for the schedule of tomorrow's flight. "I'll check you in now for the same flight for tomorrow," he says encouragingly.
A little more keying and he looks up. "That flight is full, too," he says, sheepishly. After another hurried consultation with co-workers, he says, "South African Air is not responsible for your missing your flight, that was the fault of Botswana Air, so you need to negotiate with them for making new connections."
We lug our baggage to the other end of the terminal and wait in line at the Botswana Air counter. When it's our turn, we explain our tale of woe and the attendant begins keying information in her terminal. She's not having much success. After a while she reports, "That same flight tomorrow is full," information that is old news to us. "I'll try to make some calls and see what I can do, but in the meantime it might be useful to go back to South African Air and tell them your story. Maybe they'll help you out."
Back we go to the other end of the terminal. Now, Counters 27 and 28 are deserted. There's no one in sight. We see some representatives at Counter 11 or thereabouts, however, so we corral one and give her the details of our dilemma. She listens patiently, then says, "We can't help you here at the check-in counter. You need to go to the Service Desk. They'll see what can be done for you."
Happily, the Service Desk is not at the other end of the terminal, but there's a line and it's moving very slowly. We watch as one rep after another puts up a little sign in the window that says "Closed," and then departs. It must be the end of a shift.
We also watch as several people break through the line and march up to the window . . . and then get service! A big guy in front of us properly in line -- and I mean big and strong -- approaches one such customer. I expect fisticuffs will break out, but it's only a shouting match that transpires.
When it's our turn, I explain our dilemma as best I can. The rep's fingers tap in some information on his keyboard. He looks at the screen and says, "Tomorrow's flight is closed!" Well, stop the presses!
"But," I protest, "I understand there are three Business Class seats available." (That's what I had been told by the Botswana Air rep.)
"Everything's gone, now," he says rather cavalierly. But here's what I can do. I can put you on standby for that flight and confirm you on a flight to Washington Dulles." Now, finally, that's helpful!
We must then return to the other end of the terminal to report our findings to the Botswana Air desk. There, we're issued vouchers for an overnight stay at a nearby hotel, and three meals: tonight's supper, tomorrow's breakfast and lunch. "How do we get to the hotel?" I inquire.
We're told there's free shuttle service, and a trainee is dispatched to lead us to the pick-up point. That's nice!
But she's clearly a new trainee, and quite quickly it's clear: the blind is leading the blind. We get outside the terminal and she has no idea where she's going. Inquiries lead us off in one direction. We meet a man who says he'll lead us there and the four of us are walking down a darkly-lit street. "Can we trust this man?" I whisper to the trainee. She seems uncertain.
Around a couple of corners we come upon a bus terminal of some sort. Another man tells us the shuttle we want should arrive in maybe 45 minutes. Forty five minutes?
After a while I talk to an official-looking man in a white shirt. He says a vehicle will be coming soon, and if not, he will drive us to the hotel.
A man in a blue shirt approaches me and says the delay before the shuttle arrives will be at least an hour, so we should go with him. "How much?" I inquire.
"It's up to you," he says. Now, I'm completely confused.
Five or ten minutes later the white-shirted man says, "Come on, let's go." We get in a van and some airplane crew people join us. This is comforting. It's a ten minute ride to the Birchwood Executive Hotel and Conference Center.
The entrance to the place is very low key: no bright lights or impressive facade, but the hotel itself is quite nice, although the rooms themselves are rather basic. There are bars on all the windows and we notice three rows of electrified wire at the top edge of each building and on the wall that surrounds the facility. I guess this is standard operating procedure in some areas of Johannesburg. It's now after 10:00 p.m.
We have dinner (the service is a little slow) and finally get to bed at 11:30.
Saturday, December 2, 2006
I sleep until nearly 8:30. After my shower, we go for breakfast. What an impressive spread; it may be the largest breakfast buffet I've ever seen!
We must check out by 11:00, so we store our bags and sit by the pool while we wait for the shuttle; JJ takes it easy, I update my journal.
After lunch we catch the 1:30 shuttle to the airport. We return to Botswana Air and find we have a confirmed reservation on this evening's flight to JFK. That's a relief! We then return to the South Africa Air customer "service" counter and get our ticket "reissued." We return to Botswana Air to see about our flight from JFK to West Palm Beach. We're told two reservation requests have been submitted to JetBlue, but no confirming reply has been received. We're told a status message for us will be sent to Gate 6 before we board our flight to JFK.
Back at South African Air we check in, then proceed to immigration and passport control. Just before entering the waiting lounge, JJ discovers he left his camera back at the Birchwood. We find a phone service and JJ calls the hotel. The camera has been found, but how can he get it? Arrangements are made for it to be carried by shuttle to the Intercontinental Hotel (adjacent to the airport), and JJ dashes off to retrieve it.
Amazingly, JJ returns in a half hour or so with the camera! What a stroke of good luck that is. The bad news is that Jim finds, upon close inspection, most of the photos he took were not recorded on the camera memory card. Apparently, he inadvertently made a three-minute video and used up all the storage.
I spend some time looking around in the stores. There are lots of nice things, but the prices are either too high or the items are not to my liking. My only purchase: Cepacol throat lozenges and Zin Care Zinc Lozenges.
A little after 6:00 we begin the boarding process. It's tedious. There's a long line to wait in to have our bags X-rayed, again. There's a line to have our passports checked. There's another line to have our tickets taken. I ask about the message Botswana Air promised me. There is no message. Then there's another line and wait on the ramp to get into the plane.
Sunday, December 3, 2006
After about eight hours, the flight makes a stop in Dakar, Senegal. A few passengers deplane, the flight crew is replaced, and we go through a security check. We are requested to retrieve all of our belongings -- from the overhead storage bins and underneath the seats -- and place them in our laps. An inspection is then made to make sure every package is claimed. I guess there's concern someone who got off at Dakar might have left an explosive device on board. That's not very comforting.
At 7:00 a.m., after a 16-hour flight, we arrive at JFK and go through customs. We get our bags and head over to JetBlue. I use an e-ticket terminal to access our tickets. The message on the screen says my name isn't in the system. I find a rep and she directs us to the Service Desk where there's a line of people waiting. After some time I tell the agent about the delayed Botswana Air flight and the two messages requesting seats on today's flight to West Palm Beach. Then came the six words that are like a stab in the heart: "We have no record of that." My tale was too much for the agent, so she scurried off to fetch her manager.
We're then directed to another counter where we get to tell our story once more. The manager swallows and says: "I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do." Then after a brief pause adds: "Perhaps you could try our 800 number: 800-JET-BLUE."
I call. The operator says there's no reservation, but if we'll willing to pay a reissue fee plus a booking fee, we can get on today's 10 o'clock flight. It costs $110 (in addition to the original ticket charge) for the two of us, but it's better than paying $218.64 for a new ticket.
The flight to West Palm is uneventful. I watch Fox News on the seatback TV screens. I have three books with me (State of Emergency, by Patrick Buchanan, The Marketing of Evil, by David Kupelian, and Undue Influence, by Ron Arnold), but I haven't wanted to open any one of them. Politics can be such a downer. I hate to reengage with the gloom and doom of the daily "news", but Fox News is my initial step back into the fray.
A trip to Africa is tedious, sometimes absolutely exasperating, and never inexpensive, but it's an adventure into another world. There, nature's raw, harsh beauty is always on display. The battles of liberals versus conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans seem to fade. The strife of war and religious conflict is temporarily relegated to lesser importance than it deserves. The cruelty of man and man's ambition is masked by the fresh air, the limitless vistas, and the rich, red, golden sunsets.
It was a great trip. I hate to see it end.
By the way, several days after I got home, I submitted a request to Africa Adventure Company for the $110 extra charge for the JetBlue flight to West Palm. I promptly received a check for that amount. Thanks, Africa Adventure Company!