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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone



Latest Travels, Africa: Fall 2016


I had seen leopards before but those were fleeting sightings, once in South Africa and an early morning sighting in Uganda. After 10 years and four safaris, this my fifth safari and in the Khwai area of Botswana was the jackpot. A mother and one year old male cub were enjoying the remains of an impala they had killed, underneath a large bush where they could get out of the scorching heat. After ten minutes, the mom came out from the bush to stretch out and digest. Soon her cub also came out, urinated and then snuggled with his mom, playing with each other the way all cats do, from domestic felines to the large cats of the world. They tousled, turning each other over and presumably gently biting and clawing each other. We were able to watch their regal play for about an hour, and they seemed oblivious to the homo sapiens so intent on photographing their every adorable interaction.

I was on a 9 day safari with Ulinda Safaris, witnessing the stunning beauty that is Botswana. Jane is the owner of Ulinda Safaris and she has been leading groups in the area for 30 years. I was exploring Botswana after a short stopover in Istanbul, still one of my favorite cities in the world. The cheapest flights to Africa from the U.S. are on Turkish Airlines since lots of folks are too scared to fly the airline because of terrorist attacks in Turkey. Per capita, I'm not sure that Turkey is any more dangerous that any European capital or my home town of Oakland, CA. I had explored Istanbul as a tourist with a women's tour group in 2002, so rediscovering where East meets West on my own was a delight. I toured the de rigeur sights of the blue Mosque and Haggia Sophia, and my reaction might not have been very different than my earlier trip. In the Blue Mosque, I admired the incredible architecture but my overwhelming reaction was a fantasy of Muslim women in burkas and headscarves entering the "male only" section of the mosque to hold hands in a circle and pray or sing for peace or maybe just have a "sit-in." My reaction to any country or culture that oppresses women is to have such detailed fantasies. When I shared my idea the next morning over breakfast at my hotel with a Muslim English father and his two teenage sons and 20 something daughter, he assured me that the reason that the mosque is separated into male and female sections is not to oppress or slight women in any way but because men are "weak" and that if women were praying next to the male, his thoughts would be "impure.'

Istanbul and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
I explained that I wasn't buying it and that maybe men should stay home and worship in their own homes if they couldn't be with women in a public space. The father was good natured and probably pretty open minded since he worked for a government agency in Manchester. I enjoyed a couple of nights staying at the Emile Sultan near the Blue Mosque and watched the sun rise over the Bosphorus from my window. The most memorable experience was a delightful fish dinner in a local restaurant that featured a trip playing traditional Turkish music. The musicians didn't speak English so we communicated by my enthusiastic clapping and solo dancing. I love being the rich tourist when I am able to honor such a group with a bountiful tip.

To fly to Botswana, one pretty much has to fly through Johannesburg and I chose to augment my time in the area by flying into Victoria Falls in the disastrous country of Zimbabwe. Mugabe has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1987 and even though he is 93 years old, there seems to be no end of him in sight. Like many African dictators of the past, he promised prosperity but the economy has ended up in ruins. It is somewhat ironic that though he pretty much forced most everyone not black to leave the country, Zimbabwe has now adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. Of course, many black Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and I met one very amiable native on the flight to Johannesburg who is now a mechanic in the U.K. The socialist legacy of Mugabe is certainly a mixed bag as the Zimbabweans I met out of their own country seem to be well educated, confident and friendly as is true of many immigrants all over the world.

Arriving in the airport in Zimbabwe is a test of a Westerner's patience. It took about about an hour for me to pass through customs in a stifling room as every passport and visa must be written out by hand. And why come to Zimbabwe at all? The answer of course is Victoria Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world, draining the Zambezi River. With temperatures in the low 90's, I enjoyed the incredible spray from the falls, even though it was running at perhaps 10% of its capacity as I visited at the end of the dry season. Magnificent rainbows appeared above and inside the falls and I fondly remembered past trips hiking the great falls of the world, including Yosemite Falls, Iguacu Falls (Brazil and Argentina) and of course Niagara Falls. Perhaps because I was born in West Texas and never saw a huge waterfall except in Hawaii growing up, I am pretty much overcome with delight at any large waterfall cascading down a vertical fall. I always ponder how far and where did the water I am seeing come from and where is it headed. In the case of the Zambezi, the source is in Zambia and the water will flow into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.

The following morning my guide Jane picked me up at my guesthouse and we also picked up the two Belgians who would be my intimate companions for the next 9 days. The couple were pleasant and fun but we never became particularly close as I sometimes do with safari mates. Our safari included 3 staff members, one of whom was an amazing female cook and two men who set up the tents, watched the camp while we were gone (protecting it from animals including vervet monkeys) and who also helped serve dinner and clean up. This was my fifth camping safari in Africa and all have been fairly simple and low budget. The tents and bathrooms and showers on this tour were about par for the course, simple but fairly comfortable, although sleeping on the ground becomes a bit more challenging the older I become. What I love about camping safaris is the proximity to the sounds and sights of birds and animals. Unfortunately, camping at the beginning of November in Botswana was most challenging because of the extreme heat and dust. We would watch the sun come up with our first tea and breakfast in the morning and be up and out by 5:30am and return by 11am. From 11am-4pm we suffered extreme heat and I learned the trick of wetting my sarong and wrapping it around me for the relief of evaporation. Large trees are scarce in Chobe National Park but we did our best to find them. It did cool down at night to some extent but I slept nude with just a sheet on most nights. But the long days of driving and heat are what Botswana is comprised of in the Chobe area with the Chobe River a much welcome ribbon of blue with a green belt surrounding it.

On our first afternoon out we spotted three female lions with two cubs between them, lying down and then walking as the sun set over the expanse of this corner of pristine preservation. Botswana's economy depends a great deal on tourism and it seems that lots of resources go into the parks with the park fees high, as in other countries of East Africa. Jane is a professional photographer so her photos are quite remarkable and I have added some here. She is also a knowledgeable birder and over the course of the safari I saw many of my favorites including the lilac breasted roller, the kori bustard in mating plumage, saddle-billed storks (in Khwai only) and many Egyptian geese, African fish eagles, sacred ibis, ground hornbills, among others. Besides the leopard sighting, perhaps the other most remarkable event was a 6 foot black mamba snake which passed in front of the truck and up a tree where we got some photos. The black mamba (which I also saw in Tanzania a few weeks later) is called the two step snake in Tanzania as if bitten, you take one, then two steps before you perish! I'm not particularly afraid of snakes, but this huge one gave me a little and scary thrill.

Other dramatic animal encounters happened right inside our campground. One night I awoke to the sound of lapping in the ablution pouch right outside my tent. Hyenas were so thirsty that they had resorted to drinking from the pouches. Another afternoon we were all reading and napping under the dining tarp when two male elephants came into camp and were eating the trees (I forget which kind). They continued to come closer and closer with their sagging flesh and powerful trunks until Jane started banging steel cups together, the way I shoo away bears in the Sierras. I wasn't particularly afraid but I also know that elephants can be dangerous and I know of instances when tourists got too close trying to take photos and were stampeded or picked up by a trunk and beaten to death. In this instance, we just sat still until the majestic ones moved on. Knowing the horrible statistics about the poaching of elephants and the real possibility that they could practically disappear in my lifetime or by 2050 made this encounter all the more special.

The best day of the trip was a boat ride on the Chobe River where our pilot and guide circumnavigated a small island where we witnessed two elephants cross the river, frolicking and spurting water on the crossing. We also saw enormous monitor lizards and crocodiles and quite a few hippos which of course are the most dangerous animal in Africa for humans. I can spend countless minutes watching hippos as they "eat, pray and love." As they submerge themselves in a river, they contentedly enjoy the cool of the water, barely keeping their eyes and funny little ears above water and then occasionally plunging down for a total dunk.

One morning we also took a ride on the wooden canoes called makaro on the Okavango Delta but it was so hot that it was hard to really appreciate the experience as we didn't see anything we hadn't already observed, except for a tiny tree frog. On the 4th day of the safari, we had a long drive from one side of the park to another, getting three flat tires (among 2 vehicles). As we arrived in Khwai, I decided I needed a break from camping and booked a room at a lodge inside the park that had AC and a large and somewhat cool verandah. I had done this previously on camping safaris and again it was a great relief to sleep in a real bed and not sit in the dirt. I met a fun group of Americans, one of whom works for the park service at Crater Lake as a biologist. After dinner the staff performed traditional dance and song which was pretty delightful with at least one woman making a throaty sound that is distinctively African, although many cultures, including Balkan singing have same of the same piercing accentuation. The next morning we left early in their open air jeep and had two incredible experiences. The first was a wildebeest kill by a female lion during the night and now a group of 6 hyenas were tearing the flesh apart. As we witnessed their feast, a female lion sauntered up to them and meekly chased them for a few minutes but she looked full and soon lay down nearby to watch them as she was out numbered.

Wild Dogs
The next sighting was the most memorable during my entire trip except for the leopard sighting of the day before. Suddenly, our driver and guide made a beeline for what seemed to be a bush among hundreds of others. Only as we got within 20 feet could we see some ears poking out. WILD DOGS! In my previous safaris, I has never been able to spot this extremely endangered species which look like many smaller domestic dogs, except for their unusually large ears. They are exceptional hunters, taking turns as the front leader, to bring down their prey. Now they were resting and we saw a pack of perhaps six dogs with at least 4 puppies running out from under the bush but them back in to form a puppy pile.

South Africa and the Free State I arrived back in Johannesburg and rented a car to drive on the left side of the street, also shifting gears with my left hand. I had driven in South Africa a couple of times before in this manner so it isn't as hard as it seems. What was more difficult was finding my way even with the google maps printed out at the rental agency. This would have been the time to have sprung for extra cost of the GPS. Instead, I had to resort to asking folks on the street for directions and one chef in his white uniform told me to follow him and he must have gone out of his way by at least 15 minutes to be sure I got headed in the right direction. Even so, my google directions took me right into Soweto, presumably the largest township in the country with over a million inhabitants. I had toured there in 2005 and it was a fascinating place for its history of the Soweto Uprisings. But now I was trying to get to a small town called Parys to just spend the night. I drive right into a huge thunder and lightning storm, the enormous kind that I have only experienced growing up in West Texas and here on a previous trip when I was flying from Cape Town to Joburg. On that previous experience, I wondered what happened when a lightning bolt hits a plane as we seemed to barely dodge the bolts. Now I considered stopping by the side of road and waiting out the storm but I was impatient to get to a place where I could sleep. The next morning I confidently logged onto my laptop while having breakfast, expecting to see that Clinton had become president but the headline of the New York Times had me reeling. I literally gasped aloud when it looked like Trump would be the winner. South Africans all around me asked how it could possibly be true and I had no easy answers. I made my way to a little touristy town called Clarens with its quaint village green, art galleries, excellent eateries and a good bookstore.. It is set among the sandstone outcroppings of the Maluti mountains and I visited the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park with its eroded sandstone cliffs and a few wildlife sightings including zebra and eland. The difficulty with being a tourist in South Africa is the same as when I visited for the first time in 2005. Most blacks are poor and do the brunt of the work while most whites seem fairly prosperous. The Free State is known for being one of the most segregated provinces in all of South Africa. One black waiter I met told me he did not know of as a single black person that lived in Clarens proper, rather they all lived in the adjoining township which I watched all the blacks leave to after their work day was done.

While exploring the area around Clarens, I would pick up hitch hikers, mostly girls and older women. One morning I picked up two adorable girls in their school uniforms on their way to Ficksburg. While driving I came across a large turtle in the middle of the road and stopped the car to pick it up and move it out of danger's way. When I dropped them off, I asked if I might meet their teacher and was shown into the principal's office. The principal barely spoke English but made it clear I couldn't go inside a classroom. He did however seem to enjoy having is photo taken with his poster of Mandela. The English teacher explained that the girls were taking exams that day and when I invited him to have breakfast, he demurred but agreed to come with me to point out the best breakfast in town before reporting back to his school. The area is famous for its peaches and I stopped at a roadside stand to enjoy some of the first crop of the season. Having been away from CA during the last peach season, these tasted unusually sweet.

It was time to move on to Drakensburg National Park in KwaZulu Natal province. The park lies along an enormous escarpment and I stayed for 2 nights in a rondavel (round room) at a delightful hostel called Inkosana with its great room full of international tourists relaxing after dinner by reading and conversing. I had a stimulating conversation with a 30ish woman from Luxembourg along with a 50ish South African. The impact of the Trump election was foremost in everyone's mind and our conversation veered from the fallout of the election in international relations to the merits or demerits of affirmative action, especially for women. I also chatted excitedly with a couple in their late 20's, he was South African/German and reading Noam Chomsky's Who Rules the World while his partner was a Croatian visual artist. It was the the kind of heart to heart sharing that can happen when traveling alone. I felt so stimulated by the conversations that I had a bit of trouble falling asleep that night. This was the reason I always love staying in hostels or small guest houses. The next morning the mountain was fogged in, but I hiked into the fog and met an older hiking club on the trail. The protea and jacaranda trees were blooming as spring was in full swing. Birds included a long tailed widow bird.

Next up was the village of Memel where a friend Steve Ablondi and his wife Cindy have started a sustainable living community where they employ around 10 South Africans and Zimbabweans to work the land and build guest houses. In addition, their project had just completed building a small cohousing community in the next door township, aimed at renting to local teachers as an incentive to provide quality housing. In addition, Memel Organics runs a non-profit, providing soccer instruction and empowerment for local girls, besides various other charitable projects. The gardens include various flowers and veggies and one stand of bamboo attracts the gorgeous red bishop as well as other weavers, busy building their nests. As we were eating dinner the first night, I got an expected call from my sister with the sad news that my 65 year old brother had died from a heart attack. I was glad to be staying with friends instead of strangers as I absorbed the news.

Safari in Tanzania
I cut my trip a bit short as I was headed to Nairobi to reconnect with my longtime friend Joseph for a safari to Tanzania, retracing some of the places we had visited in 2007. This time we were staying in lodges instead of camping. After camping in Botswana though, I enjoyed the comforts that a lodge provides. Or maybe I am just getting older and less adventurous. Joseph was 45 minutes late picking me up at the airport because of a huge traffic jam which is entirely commonplace in this megalopolis. The next morning we bought some supplies before heading out to cross the southern border to Tanzania. Young men at the border crossing were eager to supply a few items that we needed for a "private" safari including a First Aid Kit and a fire extinguisher. All at a rate they proposed. I had hoped to get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro but no luck as Kibo was hiding her head in the clouds on the day we entered and also on our return. But we saw giraffes along the road right after we passed customs, almost as casually as one notices a stray dog in the U.S. What other sightings could be in store? We spent the next 2 nights in Arusha, staying in a lovely lodge high up on the outskirts of town. The highlight was a long hike I took with some local guides to a waterfall on Mt Meru, a sister mountain to the more famous Kilimanjaro. Most folks in Arusha seem to have a small plot of land on which they farm a few veggies or have some chickens or pigs. Most of the way, we passed these small plots until we rose above them to what must have been protected mountain land. We walked down now and crossed a small stream to arrive at an impressive waterfall where a group of students were enjoying the falls under the watchful eyes of some guards. The guards began speaking to my guides and clearly the conversation was not a pleasant one. Apparently they insisted that the way we had arrived was not kosher and wanted us to exit a completely different direction. After listening to them for awhile I tried to explain in English that I was a paying guest and needed to head back the way we had come in.The guards were impassive so I did what I have learned to do in these situations. I just walked back the way I had come while they continued arguing. When my guide caught up with me he told me I was "fearless" and I laughed. Perhaps "fearless" to bureaucracy but mostly impatient. For the next 5 days Joseph and I explored the national parks of Lake Manyara and Tarangire, choosing to forego famous Ngorogoro Crater as the price was astronomical to bring a private tour car in. Lake Manyara is a smaller park than many in Tanzania and enjoys an escarpment of the Rift Valley for its western border. Its huge lake is alkaline and we walked out over the lake on an impressive boardwalk to see hundreds of greater and lesser flamingos as well as whistling ducks and mammals such as elephants, giraffes and zebras. Each day in these parks we would pickup a local guide who would direct us to the best watering holes and viewpoints.

Last days in Africa are always bittersweet. I heard "karibu" (welcome) at least 50 times a day. A large fireball falling from the night sky was perhaps the most spectacle experience of all. (What was it?) The smells, sounds, and sights of the wild--thousands of birds including hundreds of pink flamingos and thousands of white pelicans plus a special sighting of a relaxed juvenile leopard in a tree at Silale Swamp, Tarangire. Another black mamba and wilddebeests running through our camp our last morning made for a scene "Out of Africa." Even paying off the police for a trumped up charge of speeding was just part of the package. And my last night included a thunder and lightning storm that knocked the electricity off in my all time favorite guest house in the world (or at least Africa) called Macushla in Nairobi. And when I literally made my connection in Istanbul by two minutes so as not to miss my brother's funeral, I gave thanks for everything I had seen and especially for my strong legs that had allowed me to run through the airport, almost like the cheetah I could imagine being.
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