Sometimes you’re wrong; sometimes you’re right.
I was wrong to bet the Pittsburgh Pirates over 64 wins this season. They are terrible.
However, I was 100% right about returning to Africa.
Andi and I went to Southern Africa in 2016 for our 25th wedding anniversary. Impressed, we pledged to do it again in 2021 for our 30th. However, Covid had other ideas. But, once we thought the virus risk was minimized we quickly booked that 30th anniversary trip for our 31st which was the week before last. Same itinerary as the first time with hopes for a deeper appreciation of our surroundings and to see what we might have missed. And holy hyenas, did we get our monies worth.
Martin, one of our safari game guides, described his home continent as “Indescribable and unpredictable.” He’s been around long enough to know.
This journey was nine nights, a quick few hours to sleep in Johannesburg and then on to four safari camps of two nights each: one in Zambia and three in beautiful Botswana. One of the days we had meals in three different countries- breakfast in Zambia, lunch in Zimbabwe and dinner in Botswana. Other than a lot of food, there was also incessant immigration, passport control and vax authorizations over eight hours. Also, throw in Namibia which we touched while cruising on the Zambezi River watching elephants cross.
We saw the big five of the African bush: lions, Cape, now known as African buffalo, rhinos, hippos and leopards. Throw in cheetahs, elephants, hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, monkeys, baboons, kudus, crocs, a few snakes and more birds of every color than in a Hartz Mountain catalogue. Oh, and then there were the impalas. Loads of impalas. More plentiful than hippies charging down the hill at Woodstock. The poor impalas, so many that they become easy prey for predators, earning their nickname as the “McDonald’s of the bush.”
We were an eclectic group of twelve on the tour. Andi and I were joined by Mike Labanowski, a friend of mine through our fantasy baseball. Labs’ wife decided she’d rather enjoy the comfort of their Tampa home without him; something I certainly understand, so he came solo. There was a retired former high powered DC lawyer and his 35 year-old-son. A couple from Philadelphia who take at least two exotic destination tours a year. The duo from Nashville on their first safari. The thirtysomethings from Cleveland: she a travel writer and photojournalist and he an emergency room doc. And a newly hired travel consultant from our tour company, Abercrombie and Kent (A&K) in Chicago, on a familiarization trip. One primary guide, native Botswanan Kebbe Arabang , accompanied us the entire trip and we were joined by resident guides in each camp. The quarters were impressive, stand-alone upscale tents, opening up to the plains with no limitations on how close the game can get to joining you for breakfast or a nap or as I found out in the middle of the night. We hopped from camp to camp on our tiny single-engine Mack Air charters, some seat eight or the 12 seat jumbo model. With a group of 13, including Kebbe, we always had two planes, landing on a dirt airstrips to get to our camps.
“Roy, I hear something outside,” Andi said with a stage whisper at 11:15 on night six. I was just entering much coveted deep sleep. “ Go the sleep, it’s just some critters outside,” I think I mumbled back. She wasn’t convinced.
She opens the drapes and yells, “OMG, there’s an elephant on our porch!” Well, that was an exaggeration as our porch was too small for a whole elephant, instead just its head and trunk were planted next to the lounge chairs.
Panicked, I jumped up. “Where’s the radio?” I got on the hand radio and called nighttime security. “This is cabin number four and there’s an elephant on our porch,” I yelled at the lady who answered it. “Calm down sir,” she told me. “It’s only grazing.” Grazing? Grazing for what, my kishkes? “You don’t understand,” my voice raised, “there’s a damn elephant on our porch.”
Peeking carefully through the curtains, damn it was elephant. Probably a juvenile, not fully grown, but enough to scare those kishkes out of me. Not really sure if it was male or female but I wasn’t checking. It was hungry and eating bark from the trees surrounding the tent. Leaving the porch, the big guy or gal went to the side of our cabin, trunk about two feet from our bedroom window. Andi talks to it. “Oh, what a sweet baby.” If that sweet baby wanted to put us on its trunk and flip us, we would have done heights the Flying Wallendas could only dream about. If that sweet baby wanted to charge, we would have been smashed quicker than a ‘72 Monte Carlo in a compactor. Finally, maybe five, ten minutes later it meandered off but not before leaving a huge sample behind on our walkway. We thought we had a unique story for breakfast. With only a dozen tents in camp, virtually everyone else had a nighttime visitor, too.
But that’s the way it goes on safari. People who never experienced it will say it’s a total exaggeration when you tell them how close you get to the wildlife. We were within ten yards of a male lion protecting a buffalo kill. Maybe fifteen yards from a family of cheetahs. Zebras are the jumpiest and tend to run when a Land Cruiser of six snapping lenses gets too close. Monkeys are the bravest. Labs had one jump on his backpack and try to unzip it as he was walking. And I thought with him tagging along that I was the one with the monkey on my back.
Six of our nights were in Botswana, our favorite place. It’s a country the size of Texas, with a population of 2.3 million, same as the Houston city limits. Most live in poverty. The government does provide healthcare, though substandard. There’s no retirement or pension unless you work for the government. Nevertheless, this is what the people know and can’t be any nicer or welcoming. The Okavango Delta stretches for thousands of miles populated exclusively by wildlife. We spent four days on drives through the Delta and you can be just about guaranteed never to see the same scenario twice.
What we didn’t see on our trip six years ago was a kill. It sounds gruesome but it’s part of the lifecycle in the bush. It controls population and is a means of nutrition and survival for the breeds declining in numbers. We didn’t see a kill this time either because most happen at night when predators can surprise their prey. What we did see however was three post-kill feasts. There was the male lion that took down a 1600 pound buffalo and savored the remains for three days while vultures and the nasty hyenas waited for him to move on so they could get the scraps. We went back two days in a row to see the progress. The lion remained guarded. All that was left on the carcass were ribs and Mr. Lion was feasting on that like all-you-can-eat night at Tony Roma’s. We saw a leopard with impala remains, the entire stomach was gone, and the leopard tried to carry the impala up a tree for safety from others that also might be hungry for McDonalds. And there was the pride of lions that killed a zebra. We watched mom and one of her cubs drag the zebra to a shady landing spot as the vultures unsuccessfully circled. Then there was the fascinating close encounter of a buffalo surrounded by four female lions looking for an attack opening. When the buffalo charged, the lions ran. Same thing that happens to the Lions on a typical NFL Sunday.
Labs and I took a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. After seeing it a second time, I’m still wondering why. It’s water falling over rocks, like in centerfield at a Kansas City Royals home game. Big deal. The sunsets in Africa are breathtaking and that’s understated. Most times during dinners in the camps a picky eater can find something familiar on the daily custom menu. Then there were specialty dishes: Impala burgers, grilled kudu, fried worms and other local dishes. No thank you. At one of the lodges, on our registration forms, it had my second language listed as Yiddish. I have no idea how or why. Almost everyone in Africa speaks understandable English. The official language in Botswana is Setswana and despite me taking two college semesters, I was surprised what little recall I had. If only they spoke Yiddish.
Wildlife aside, one of the very touching mornings for me was visiting Nakatindi, a village in Zambia. The village has 5,000 residents and is as dirt poor as the dusty roads throughout. It’s supported in part by the philanthropic arm of A&K, teaching people trades they can use in the commercial Livingston, Zambia marketplace. The people, especially the kids, are as friendly to visitors as they can be. Most houses don’t have indoor plumbing. Water is pumped manually through a well into buckets. There’s a health clinic on the grounds with a doc flown in every Wednesday. Pregnancy is common with midwives delivering. One kid wanted to show me his house and kitchen, outside the main home, and I gave him a five dollar bill. It might as well have been a thousand. He grinned wide as could be and asked me for a hug. Labs on the other hand may have been the favorite American ever in Nakatindi. For a still unexplained reason, he brought with him a stack of his Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers fantasy camp baseball cards. He passed them to a group of kids who cherished them like the 1952 Mickey Mantle that sold the day before for $12.6 million. They held them tight, smiled, and followed Labs wherever he went. Then word got around the village and Labs was flooded by kids who wanted a card. Soon the supply was gone. The kids who didn’t get one had no idea the eBay value of what they didn’t have was just as great as the kids who got a Mike Labanowski card.
A phenomenal trip. Not sure we will ever get back but glad we got to experience twice one of the greatest places on earth. The only thing that could have been better was a full night’s sleep if there wasn’t a damn elephant on our porch.