March 29, 2005

Into Africa and out again, Part II


On the Okavango Delta, it is not yet dawn at our safari camp in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, yet someone is knocking on our tent's door, holding a tray of tea and coffee, so we can semi-awaken in our tent before dressing in our special safari clothes and heading up to breakfast. (The first morning, my companion and I sleep through the knock. We are New Yorkers, and it takes a lot more than a polite knock to disturb our sleep.)

Tent is a misnomer: while made in part at least of canvas, it has a full bathroom, with a separate stall shower and double sinks. We have electricity close to 24/7; when the generator is off, our bedside lamps operate on battery power. The pillows are down-filled.

It is a curious wilderness experience, one tempered by Western amenities and a large staff, including our own private guide/chauffeur to help us spot game on our morning and afternoon drives through the Reserve.

I didn't know about the bedside lamps the first night, when I woke up and needed to find the bathroom. It was pitch black. The overcast sky made it impossible to see much-needed moonlight. First, I couldn't find the opening in the bed's mosquito netting, so I lifted a piece to get free of it. Then I stumbled all over the tent, uncertain of my bearings. Where was the front? Fifteen minutes later, I found the bathroom. It took less time to return to bed as I groped my way back. For me, the wilderness began with the tent.

Morning game drives run from 6:30 am to 10: 30 am. 11 am brings brunch -- a buffet with enough variety for the carinvores, the vegetarians, and even the vegans among us. We are, all told, 16 guests. I eat two omelettes, go back for cereal with yogurt and fruit. It's not as if I do anything more than take pictures during the drive, but I am famished, and exhausted.

It is almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the heat is so strong no one speaks of it.

At 4 pm, we have high tea, then three more hours in the savannah, followed by 8 pm dinner. It turns out I can consume amazing quantities of food, considering my exercise consists of pushing the shutter button on my camera for 7 hours a day.

The name of the game is, well, spot that game. Here, the middle-aged farsighted have a great advantage, for I am myopic and astigmatic.

For the most part, people are interesting, entertaining, and exceedingly well traveled. With the exception of Antarctica, someone has been to any spot you can designate. This is one hell of a group to play "geography" with.

You don't get to Botswana without doing China and Japan at minimum first. I have yet to see Southeast Asia or Patagonia, but I get bonus points for the obscurity of my trips to New Zealand and the Galapagos Islands.

These are serious travelers, mostly American, all well-heeled, mostly in their 50s and 60s, with the exception of one honeymooning couple, investment bankers based in Hong Kong, with whom I have as little in common as I would their counterparts here. The bride sounds dumbfounded as I explain the concept of my book club to her. It's not exactly quantum physics: several of us, my companion and I included, meet once a month to discuss a book and eat copious amounts of hors d'ouevres and dessert.

The only one who irritates me is the teacher who wants to write a book about termite societies, and it is to her that I can't resist pointing out the advantage the farsighted (herself included) have in spotting game. They all need reading glasses, while I do not, at least for the moment.

Hippos play in the Khwai River, less than 90 feet from our dining table. All the animals are astounding. The bush is vast, flat, an unforgiving open plain. It belongs to the animals, and we are simply visitors passing by. I see herds of impala -- one of 16 types of antelope, I learn. There are giraffes and elephants everywhere.

The zebra family is called Burchell's Zebra, and there are multitudes. I am entranced by animals I didn't know existed: the Blue Wildebeest, the Tsessebe, the Kudu, Waterbuck, and Red Lechwe. I tick them off in my game book under "mammals."

There are also pages for birds, creepers, amphibians, reptiles, fish, trees, common grasses, and aquatic plants -- our guides can identify far more flora and fauna than I can process.

After two days, we hop a baby Cessna to the second safari camp, the Savute Elephant Camp in Chobe National Park. There are fewer of us, and guides who tell us the rules say they must stay on the roads, but this is honored only in the breach, we find. I spend a lot of time ducking branches.

Elephants spray muddy water over one another to moisturize themselves outside the dining room. The elephant hides are the smoky gray color of the dead leadwood trees whose bark they have eaten. They are, I learn, vegetarians, and they are right- or left-tusked, just as we are handed.

Not so the cheetah we saw gnawing a dead impala. I don't know what the warthog eats. The spotted hyena will take the cheetahs' leavings. During our meals, we have to make sure the baboons don't swoop down to take a bite. This is a different great outdoors than the one I refer to in the U.S. when I am outside the city and calling myself the fresh-air-fund kid. This is an outdoors like no other.

Four days in the bush is about right for my companion and me. We have seen the wildlife, heard it roar, and checked it off in our game books. We have watched the African sunset over the entire horizon, been awake for the African dawn, seen the unfamiliar night sky, stars popping in constellations found only in the southern hemisphere, the moon halogen-white bright, and we are in awe.


Blogger MissRocker said...

hello, found your blog through blog explosion. interesting. have a nice day, take care! :)

5:40 AM  
Blogger no milk said...

would never be able to survive in the wilderness. must. have. tv.

10:22 AM  

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