Farewell to Africa – for now

Farewell to Africa – for now

“Once the red dirt of Africa gets into your hiking boots, you will never get it out.”  The place was Kuyenda, a tiny bush camp in the heart of Zambia’s remote South Luangwa National Park and the first stop on my first African safari.  The year was 2006. The soft-spoken words came from a man who knew what he was talking about.

A LIVING LEGEND

Zambia South Luangwa, Phil Berry

Phil Berry is one of the most respected naturalists in Zambia.

Born in England, Phil Berry moved to Africa as a child and grew up in Northern Rhodesia before it became the Republic of Zambia in 1964. And there he was still, now a living legend well beyond the Luangwa Valley, for his life-long dedication to the protection of elephants and rhinos and as a pioneer of the walking safaris for which the park is famous.

I nodded. I was still groggy from the 48-hour journey from North America but after one single day in the bush, I already understood. The day’s game drives had taken us from elephants tearing at Mopani trees for their breakfast and hills dotted with skittish impalas ready to bounce off at the first hint of menace to a pride of lions still sleeping off last night’s feast in a shady glade. Then there had been a intoxicating African sunset and a lovely al fresco dinner under the black velvet and diamonds sky. I was already hooked.

CLOSE CALLS

Kenya highlands black rhino

In the highlands of Kenya, my first rhino sighting ever.

It took three trips before I was finally able to sight a rhino; and a close up encounter it was. It was in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy the highlands of Central Kenya. My guide stopped our open land cruiser and pointed into the dense brush. “Rhino,” he whispered.

I got so excited that I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the overhead roll bars, camera at the ready, thus forgetting one of the cardinal rules of game watching (no abrupt move). The startled black male rhino came charging out of the brush, coming straight at us before finally making a ninety degree turn a mere six feet from impact!

Okavango Delta Elephant

This old bull stares us down and out of his watery kingdom.

Who knew elephants could charge so fast in water? Also in the Okavango Delta, this large bull took exception to our boat navigating in “his” channel. He started menacingly toward us until we finally got the outboard motor into reverse.

 

 

BREATH-TAKING MOMENTS

Masai Mara newborn Elephant

Newborn elephant learns how to nurse.

We came across this elephant cow in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. She stood patiently while her hour-old calf tried to figure out what to do with its nasal appendage in order to start nursing.

 

 

 

 

Botswana - Leopard in the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, my first sighting ever of a leopard in a tree.

While I had seen leopards on several occasions on previous trips, I didn’t get to observe one settled in a tree until my fourth visit to Africa. We were driving in the waterlogged world of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when my ranger pointed into the tree canopy right above our open vehicle. Lucky for us that this magnificent cat had obviously already enjoyed a large dinner.

 

 

Botswana-Kalahari lion

After a blood-curdling warning roar, this old timer resumed his benevolent attitude.

We were settling in to enjoy our tailgate sundowner cocktails in a sandy clearing in Bostwana’s Kalahari when we heard a chilling moan nearby. It turned into a high-energy rumble, then escalated into a full-blown roar that made the air vibrate around us and my entire body shake.

My guide calmly motioned to me to climb back into the cruiser. I certainly remembered the “no sudden move” rule this time! We then eased at very low speed in the direction of the roar.

Having served us notice that we were trespassing, the old lion had resumed a deceivingly benevolent demeanor.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Then there are all the unique, memorable people I’ve met along the way, too many to include, so I will only mention these two:

Cobra

My great Zu/hoasi Bushman guide, Cobra.

In the Kalahari, Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet took me on a desert nature walk. He mainly spoke the distinctive clicking language of the Kalahari Bushmen, but somehow we understood each other.

 

 

 

Masai schoolgirl

Masai first-grader and her prized book bag.

In a country where the literacy rate for women is still only around fifty percent, I was delighted to meet this enthusiastic Masai first-grader at a charter school supported by andBeyond, the safari organization with which I was traveling through Northern Tanzania. She even let me admire her book bag, her proudest possession.

Location, location, location!

South Luangwa

Postcard from the edge of the crater

Postcard from the edge of the crater

This is week four of my journey around Tanzania. Several days ago, I entered the Northern Circuit, an itinerary that is taking me to the destinations safari legends are made of: Serengeti, the endless plain of the Masai and Lake Manyara, bright pink from thousands of flamingos. Today, I am headed for the holy of holies of East Africa’s wildlife destinations, and a place that was on by bucket list before I knew I had one, the Ngorongoro Crater.

A three-million-year-old volcano

Ngorongoro Crater dawn

Dawn rises over the Ngorongoro Crater

In the midst of rolling highlands on the southeastern border of the Serengeti National Park, the three million year old crater is all that remains of a once massive volcano. It is the largest intact caldera in the world, a large fertile bowl with permanent sources of water and steep sides that reach 600 meters (2,000 feet) above the crater floor. A diverse population of over 25,0000 animals inhabit its 260 square kilometer (100 square mile) area. It is one of the rare places in Africa that can boast to offer visitors a good chance to see all of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard) in one single game drive.

A fairy tale village

With these statistics buzzing in my mind, I can’t wait to get into the crater; until I arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. I can think of very few places worthy of traveling around the world just for the pleasure of staying there, but this is definitely one of them. Perched on stilts at the very edge of the rim for a jaw-dropping view of the crater and the silvery mirror of Lake Magadi in the center of it, the lodge is a fairytale village of mud and thatch inspired by Maasai mayattas and the architecture of the Dogon villages that cling precariously to the hills of Mali, half a continent away.

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge Villa

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge villas.

However, any primitive reference stops at the door. Inside, a Victorian-inspired extravaganza awaits, with cascading crystal chandeliers reflected in antique mirrors, soaring French windows draped in miles of raw silk, and cut velvet sofas piled with jewel-toned pillows. There are urns filled with long-stem roses everywhere, even in my bathroom, on an antique pedestal behind the deep freestanding bathtub.

Roses and Rhinos

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

My villa is a retreat of serene luxury.

Then there is the over-the-top service. Morning wake-up tea is delivered to my suite in a gleaming silver tea set, with freshly baked cookies in a cut glass jar. Daily laundry is returned wrapped in crimson silk, a rose tied into its bow. In the dining room, haute cuisine meals are served with the flair of a multi-star restaurant. And when I return from dinner, there is a fire in my fireplace and a decanter of cherry set within arm’s reach of my wingchair. I wonder if they’d let me move in?

What about the wildlife?

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

Ah yes, the original reason for my visit… As anticipated, wildlife viewing is outstanding; and fortunately for me, so is my guide, Edwin. While we don’t see any leopard, we witness a cheetah kill within a half hour of my arrival into the crater. The next day, we spot 28 lions in one single morning (half of the resident population). But the game is so habituated to visitors that there is a wildlife park feel to the experience. When we stop to observe a pride, one of the lionesses comes to lounge in the shade of our vehicle.

Predictably, the high density of game draws an equal proportion of tourists. When a pair rare black rhinos is spotted crossing the open plain, I count 18 vehicles converging toward them! Fortunately Edwin anticipates the beasts’ itinerary, and whisks me to a place further down the trail, where for a moment at least, I can observe them in relative privacy.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Ngorongoro Crater

Postcard from Eden

Postcard from Eden

For the past week, I have been working my way westward, following an itinerary commonly known as Tanzania’s Southern Circuit; great swaths of stunning wilderness spread across the southern part of the country. The largest of its national parks are located here, teaming with game. Yet, due to the lack of tourism infrastructure, it is a place that most of the three quarter of a million yearly visitors to Tanzania never see.

The end of the road

Men puzzle over a tire.

“This doesn’t look good!”

Now I have reached the end of the road, literally. Katavi is the third largest park in Tanzania, and a place so remote that it only receives a handful of visitors per year. The Cessna that brought me here only comes twice a week. As for road travel, don’t even ask.

My guide meets me at the airstrip and introduces himself as Apollo. “We need to stop in town to pick up a few things,” he informs me as he heaves my duffle bag into the open land cruiser. Town turns out to be a cluster of shacks lined up along a sun-baked red dirt road. Apollo vanishes and I sit in the cruiser, glad for this rare opportunity to take in a glimpse of rural African life. A few men are crouched by the side of an eighteen-wheeler, looking quizzically at one of the tires; a woman cleans a large catfish in a plastic bucket. They pretend not to notice me while I furtively snap a few pictures. I know it’s bad etiquette but I can’t resist.

Into Eden

Katavi elephants.

Elephants stomp into the underbrush.

We careen down the road in a mist of red dust, Apollo and I, and two camp staff who have by now joined us, until we turn into a spongy track under an arch of dense foliage. A barely visible sign informs me that we have entered the park. It’s the start of the wet season. There are elephants, zebras and giraffes everywhere, gorging on tender new shoots. “You are one of only three guests,” Apollo mentions casually, as we finally emerge at the edge of the flood plain. I take it to mean at the camp, but it turns out to be in the entire park. And so it is that I settle into my personal Eden, the Katavi Wilderness Camp.

Primeval paradise

The Lyamba-Iya-Mfina escarpment.

The Lyamba-Iya-Mfina escarpment borders the flood plain.

This is Africa at its pristine best, rich in game and birds going about the rhythm of their existence just as they have for millennia, and mine alone. On the first morning, I wake up to find a herd of usually elusive elands grazing beneath my deck. My tent is a comfortable canvas bungalow under a thatched roof (and with modern plumbing). It is raised on a wooden platform overlooking the undulating expense of the reed-filled Katisuna plain and the misty outline of the Lyamba-Iya-Mfipa escarpment beyond. I could sit here all day. But Apollo awaits, eager to shown me crowned cranes dancing their mating dance in the morning sun, prides of lion lounging in the reeds, journeys of giraffes strutting across the plain and birds everywhere. For a few magical days, I experience what Eden must have been, before apples and serpents.

Location, location, location!

Katavi