Sweet Botswana

August 8, 2016 Travel No Comments

What’s a nice Jewish boy from Long Island doing in a place like this?

For a guy who the word ‘outdoors’ means leaving the house to find the newspaper on the driveway or a summer night at the ball park and ‘bush’ means anything but the African wilderness while ‘Big Five’ always meant Philadelphia college basketball schools and not the elite of the jungle, who would have ever guessed I would fall in love with Southern Africa?

I did and so did my wife.  Here is a day by day account, as we lived it, of one of the most beautiful and unusual places in the world.

August 8, 2016:

There are 9,125 days in the quarter-century between August 17, 1991 and August 17, 2016.  That’s 300 months. Twenty-five years. It only seems longer than that.

About eighteen months ago, I suggested to Andi for our 25th on August 17, let’s do the lifetime trip- a safari journey to Southern Africa.  She loved the idea but had one request- that she go alone. Denied. So we will celebrate our silver day together in Botswana a week from Wednesday, dining no doubt on filet of warthog.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that coming when we hitched 9,116 days ago on a late Saturday afternoon in Wichita, Kansas in front of Judge David Dewey.

We begin our twelve-day African safari in Atlanta flying to Johannesburg with Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana on the itinerary.  The non-stop to J’Burgh is a quickie, covering 8,434 miles in a snappy sixteen hours.  It’s the fourth longest flight in the world. Only San Francisco-Singapore; Dallas-Sydney and the big daddy of them all: Auckland-Dubai, 400 miles longer than ours, where you can watch almost nine movies and get a good blood clot before unbuckling the seat belt.

Prepping for this adventure isn’t like packing for a weekend in the Poconos.  Two bags- both softsided- with a combined maximum weight of 44 pounds is all the the jungle air-hoppers will allow onboard.  It’s challenging for me- I normally check two bags for three days in Jacksonville.  Andi packed and re-packed me twice. Are sixteen Yankees, Pirates, Jets, UAB and UMiami tee shirts really too many?  I don’t think so.

Bring a roll of toilet paper they advise; I can only imagine why. And a couple of flashlights because the power goes off at about ten o’clock at night.  And DEET, whatever that is.  About a dozen other suggestions, too. It’s winter in Africa, the ideal time of the year for animal watching, so it’s recommended to bring warm clothes that you can pull off in layers as the day heats.  Andi told me I might want something called “conversion” pants. Never heard of ’em. Allegedly the pants become shorts when the temps move from 35 degrees in the morning to a 65-degree afternoon. She said you rip them off like an NBA player checking into a game.  Okay, I can identify with that– where do I get them?  She told me at Bass Pro Shops. I just stared.  I’m a Jew, born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island.  We don’t go to Bass Pro Shop.  You can’t find one in New York City.  It would be like Donald Trump walking into a mosque. Just not a fit for either of us.

Ninety minutes later, Andi brought home my new conversion pants and a silly matching safari hat she wants me to wear.  Thank you, dear.

Six weeks ago, we got shots for tentanus, typhoid and hepatitis.   It didn’t hurt in the arm as much as it did in the wallet. Seven hundred dollars’ worth of pain. And begin Malarone, the oral med for malaria, the day after we leave the States and keep ingesting for a week after getting home. Technically I don’t think it’s for malaria; I’m pretty sure it’s to prevent it.  Don’t forget the cipro ‘script in case all hell breaks loose –literally.  After all, we ain’t going to Harrisburg.

Sixteen hours in flight, the dark continent and new terrain awaits. I’m sure I will just blend-in as I tend do in most unique settings. Matching me with the jungle is like asking Larry David to man the phones on a suicide prevention hotline– “Go ahead, kill yourself. Nobody gives a shit.”

For the next twelve days, something or someone’s, gotta give.

August 9-10, 2016:

What a pleasant surprise, recommended by our Brownell Travel experts Meg North and Amanda Foshee, to spend an extra night in South Africa.  The Saxon, home for many years to Nelson Mandela and these days to Oprah, President Francis Underwood and dozens of other celebs, is truly remarkable in a picturesque setting outside of Johannesburg, a very upscale area known as Sandhurst.  And the hotel must be an animal haven in its own right– today I saw a bird.

Of course, when you come off a sixteen-hour airplane flight, anything with a mattress looks five-star. The trek really wasn’t that bad other than feeling like you missed a day somewhere. We had a wind push from behind, shortening our journey to only fifteen hours and six minutes; and it felt like only fifteen hours and six minutes.  You have to stay busy to make it feel so short:  you read, you eat, you sleep for six hours, you watch part of a movie before dozing off again, you find the restroom, you fall back to sleep, you read some more, you eat again, you edit the book you’ve been writing for the last year and a half, you nap, you go to the restroom, you eat, back to the restroom and then bingo– you arrive.  Easy stuff.

We were lucky to get here in the first place. By driving to Atlanta from Birmingham, we missed Delta’s chaotic Monday with a system outage that caused massive flight cancellations and delays totaling over 1500. Of the 260 seats on our aircraft, which they tell me are always filled, 89 were empty due to missed connections.  And getting to J’Burgh from the States is not an hourly shuttle.  One non-stop a day– if you miss it you better hope they can squeeze you in a middle seat someday, somehow.

As the door readied to shut on our flight yesterday, a couple scrambles in, winded but extremely relieved.  Andi asked me “do you think they are going on our trip?”  I said,”Nah, what would be the chances of that?”   So, once they settled in, stopped sweating and caught their breath, I made conversation with the gentleman, just to make sure I was right.  Of course, Will and Regina Schlotter from Austin, TX are on our safari. Andi nailed it again.  I’m tired of being reminded.  In fact, with the Schlotter’s we now are two-thirds or our Abercrombie and Kent safari group– there’s only six of us on this journey, which everyone agrees, compared to the normal group of a dozen, will be wonderful.  The goal is to come back with all six.

South Africa, whose flag looks like the Amtrak logo, is a country of 55 million, 80% of whom are black. A quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.  There are eleven official languages in the country, though everyone speaks English as the primary, in addition to: Afrikaas, Northern Sotho, Southern Ndebole, Southern Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zula.  Our airport baggage handler spoke all eleven. Our driver, clearly not a poster child for Common Core, only spoke eight.  I know four of them, but I’m only conversational in three– my Zula can still use some work.

Pulling up to The Saxon at seven o’clock in the evening was like driving into a fort.  A walled entrance, that would make Mr. Trump proud, is clearly designed to keep the riff-raff, terrorists, Muslims and Mexicans out.  Two security personnel open the tall, gated doors and African paradise, with 53 magnificent suites await.

We met Will and Regina by happenstance for dinner where chicken was the most recognizable and safe option for me. Turns out they were winded getting on the flight in Atlanta for a reason–because of the massive Delta delays they only had a fifteen-minute connection. Primarily because Regina was a basketball and track star at Abilene Christian University, they made it.  Clearly, they are more athletic than their luggage was, which wasn’t as fortunate and missed the connection.  They have one day for it to arrive before we head to the jungle and their luggage doesn’t.

The next evening, we met the remaining pair of our travel team during the safari orientation. Blair and Ashley Miller, from Los Angeles, are a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon.  It took 33 hours for them to get here with a twelve-hour layover in Paris. It’s the first time Blair has ever left North America– one heck of an agenda to break your maiden.  Other than me, it looks like a nice group.  And just as we were making introductions, Will got a call that his luggage had arrived and was in the lobby.  That deserved another round of Absolute on the rocks for both of us.

So tomorrow we pack up and depart paradise headed to the jungle. Leaving Ibis behind no doubt was the toughest thing for me but giving up Internet, cell phone, television and newspapers for the next eight days doesn’t have me doing cartwheels either.

I might grant Andi her anniversary wish after all– let her go on safari alone. She can find me at The Saxon.

August 11, 2016:

“Welcome to Maun.”

As the pilot of our South African Airlink flight number 8300 touched down in this Bostwanian gateway, he uttered those three words that a kid born in the Bronx never expected to hear.

And just like that, in a matter of ninety minutes, I went from the comfortable and familiar big city sanctity of Johannesburg, and a couple of days at a world class resort, to the jungle.

Maun, Botswana is the jumping off point to get to the renowned big game of the Okavango Delta, where the luxuries of life give way to habitat.  Maun is a community of about 100,000 where the major industry is tourism, farming and mining.  English is the secondary language, taking a back seat to native Setswana. It was sad for me because I took Setswana back in the 10th grade but unfortunately none of it came back to me today.  I hate when that happens.

Getting here in the first place was no Sunday drive in the park.

Maun’s airport terminal looks like six Subway stores thrown together to make one. Immigration control reminds you of lining up at the roller coaster ticket booth at the state fair. If you work slowly, then you are too fast to work in this country.

Our tidy group of six was met by our bush-guide, Ali Tiego, named after the fighter. Ali, no doubt the greatest bush-guide of them all, will be with us for the remaining eight days of the adventure.  He escorted us out of the mini-terminal to our shuttle
van. The van was driven by a sweet gal named Heather, who not only took us to our Mack Air Quest Kodiak single prop aircraft parked on an outer slip, but also loaded our baggage on the eight-seat airplane.  She then jumped on board and gave us our safety briefing and when finished she jumped into the pilot seat to take us on our sixty mile, ten minute flight, landing on a sand runway in the ‘Delta. Talk about an efficient business model. I was so impressed I went and joined Mack Air’s frequent flyer program. You just never know.

At the Okavango Delta dirt airstrip, our chariot for the next week, a lovely Land Cruiser awaited. It seats ten and is Botswanian air conditioned; which means no windows and no top.  Ali got into the pilot seat of the Land Cruiser and off we went to our lodge in this camp for two nights.

And it was no ride on the Long Island Expressway as we saw and gawked at impala, zebra, baboons and elephants.  We ain’t in the Bronx anymore.

Tonight we sat around a campfire at the main lodge under the dark and starry African sky before the six of us had a wonderful, private dinner prepared by the lodge staff, that only a couple of hours earlier, greeted us with song and handshakes as we arrived.

And during dinner a special guest tried to pop in.  Mr. Elephant was in the neighborhood and literally wanted to see what was cooking.

In the morning we’ll head out early for our first official big-game drive. They say the key is to get out early, when the animals are hungry and very active.

I just hope none of them have been waiting for a kosher meal.

August 12, 2016:

It was just another ho-hum morning in the jungle.

Overnight temps in Botswana dipped into the high 40s and our cabin at Sanctuary Stanley Camp has no heat. In fact, it has very little anything.  No a/c and if there’s a television, I’ll be damned if I can find it.  And I was livid with no USA Today at our door.  I called and complained.  I wanted my USA Today.  The young lady, with a strong Setswana accent, told me the best she could find was ‘Botswana-Three-Days-Ago.’ I passed.

The cabins are best described by Andi as “tents with walls and a canvass roof.”  Thankfully there’s a loo and halfway decent shower stall.  Not much else.  It looks like a bunk from my past summer camp days. And with no heat the night was cold, but fortunately someone on the staff of thirty thought of a mattress-pad heater, which worked.

The actual community we are in is Xaxaba (don’t worry, nobody here can pronounce it either) with a village population of 200.  It’s about sixty miles from the big city of Maun, and our ten-minute flight over here yesterday would have taken anywhere between three and seven hours to drive depending on flooded dirt and gravel roads.  So, next time you bitch about the Grand Central Parkway or The 405, remember Xaxaba. And the average monthly wage is $300, so the next time anyone on my Medjet staff bitches about what they are making, I’ll tell them to look for work in Xaxaba.

There’s no Target or Wal-Mart either, as you probably figured, so the best they can do is have groceries and supplies flown in every Friday.  You better make a weekly list and check it twice.

After a great homemade breakfast our group of six, all still getting along, jumped into the Land Cruiser with our personal guide Ali, who still is the greatest.  Not knowing what we would see, we ventured out about five miles, including through water that flooded the truck, but was worth it as elephants were all over the place.  That figures in a country that has the largest elephant population in the world– over 250,000 of the big guys.

The sunset canoe ride down the delta started just fine, thank you, navigated by one of the native oarsman.  That is until we bumped right into a hippopotamus that not only was wading but also waiting.  He took none too kindly to our recreational adventure and after a three minute stare down, that really felt like three hours, he won.  We turned around and ventured to another part of the waterway.

We also had our fill of baboons today.  Constantly eyeing us during lunch, hoping to swipe a scrap; purposely annoying the elephants, and then when we returned to our cabin there were about a dozen of them scattered on our porch and roof.

Honestly, they acted like a bunch of baboons.

August 13, 2016:

I had just finished buttering my second piece of Saturday morning toast and still had two of the three fried eggs on the plate.  Blair was working on his omelet; Ashley just cracked a hard boiled egg; Will had a big bowl of porridge and Regina was putting syrup on her pancakes.  Andi had a plate of scrambled eggs.

Ali, the greatest tour guide of them all, hurriedly comes into the dining room and tells us a leopard was just spotted running through camp and if we hurry we may be able to find it.

Knives and forks didn’t come crashing down but everyone did go on fast-forward, finished as much breakfast as they could with three more bites, forgot about the loo and jumped into the jungle vehicle.

About an hour earlier, as Andi and I were awakening, a pride of lions paraded between our cabin and the Schottler’s.  We heard them but by the time we ran out of the cabin we had missed them, as did Will and Regina, but the native that brought our coffee fortunately was a step or two behind and smartly gave them the right-of-way.

Looking to make up time for a too lazy breakfast departure, Ali, the greatest, floored the Land Cruiser.  There are no roads in the Botswanan jungle, only dirt and sand paths, made by other vehicles.  Water is no obstacle either, we rolled through three feet of it with our legs up because the floorboard floods.  Hold-on to those backpacks and cameras too. If you have a bad back, knees, joints, hips or even a shoulder like mine that is scheduled for surgery in ten days, be forewarned: every bump, and there are many, will pop some pain.  It’s like driving on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

But it was worth it when fifteen minutes later we caught up to her sitting in a tree.  A magnificent animal, who Ali said was fully grown at eight or nine years old.  She could care less about us sitting and gawking.  There was total silence from our truck except for the rapid sound of shutters clicking and hearts pounding.  

We were 18-20 feet away.  She was scouting for food as the kingdom was active this morning.  Finally, madame leopard climbed down from the tree, walked past the front of our vehicle and then found a cozy spot in the overgrown brush to sun.  We closed to maybe a dozen feet and as long as we stayed in the truck and didn’t startle her, we got along just fine, fortunately.

After twenty minutes we left and continued the morning drive.  In route we saw elephants, zebra, impala, giraffe, warthog, kudu, red antelope, too many birds for my taste and gnu.  Of course I couldn’t resist and asked the gnu “What’s gnu”. I got the stink-eye in return, as if to say “Mr. Square American tourist, how many times do you think I hear that in one day?  When you come up with something gnu, let me know.”

The very busy and active morning concluded our two day stay in Xaxaba.  Ali headed the Land Cruiser to the air strip where our Mack Air plane was waiting for our fifteen minute, ninety mile flight, to Piajio, Botswana and Chiefs Camp in the Moremi Game Preserve, the predator capital of the world.  Fortunately, this Mack Air plane was a wide-body holding twelve, instead of the slim eight seater we had on the way here from Maun.

And once again my savvy travel judgement paid dividends.  By joining the Mack Air mileage program on Wednesday, I got 100 bonus points for enrolling, 50 points for the flight to Xaxaba and 75 more today.  I need one more segment to be a Mack Air medallion which guarantees priority boarding- among the first eleven- and a seat that has a light above it.

Now that I’m close to Mack Air elite, life in the jungle is really good.

August 14, 2016:

While y’all are enjoying the Olympics, we are totally in the dark in the aptly named continent.  There’s no cell, television, newspaper and very, very limited satellite internet connection in the Morembi Game Reserve of Botswana.

We do know that Michael Phelps keeps banking jewelry and the USA woman hoops team didn’t, but that the extent of what we’ve heard. I wonder if Donald has further self-destructed and now trails by twenty points or maybe Hillary has been indicted and only leads by five.  Did the Yankees really retire A-Rod or is he now the DH for the Twins or Angels?  Yes, it’s killing me.

So early Sunday morning in Africa, while LA was still partying and Ottumwa, Iowa wasn’t, we began our sunrise game drive a couple of minutes past seven.  About ninety seconds after starting Ali, yes the greatest, noticed rhino tracks and said “hold tight we’re going on a chase.”

He drove into and through areas not designed for man or machine. I think I recognized some of the scrub because I’ve lost dozens of Titleists in it through the years.  It’s much easier to take a two-stroke penalty than to continue but Ali was determined.

He tracked the tracks; he wouldn’t think of failure; we zoomed past zebra, impala, elephant, warthog,  and even a mama and baby giraffe.  We got stuck in a hole in the sand and couldn’t get out.  I asked him if he was a member of the Botswana Automobile Association. He didn’t think it was funny. He finally radioed for another drive vehicle that came and gave us a tow back on path.

An hour and ten minutes later we were rewarded with gold as Ali found the elusive beast.
The rhino, a black rhino, not designated as such by skin color, instead mouth trimmings and formation, was ten to twelve years old and pregnant.  She will have a gestation period of about fourteen months.

We stared for about fifteen minutes and we were off again to see what else the morning had in store for us.  Three hippos sunning was a vehicle pleaser but then we ran into the morning’s main event: three cheetahs, a mom and her two cheetos.  They were resting in the shade until we arrived and then cast a very wary eye on us.  Ali knows the safe distance to keep, but it’s still a heck of a lot closer than most city kids would want to be.

He drove around them for maybe ten minutes, trying to get good photo angles when something got their attention.

Fortunately, it wasn’t me.  

Instead, about fifty warthogs, ugly folks from the pig species, approached in the distance maybe a 3-wood away.  The cheetahs pop up and purposely, yet gracefully, walked to take a look.  They kept walking closer and closer but not yet with purpose.  Cheetahs are fast but designed for the 100 meters, not distance.  Like lions, they have a quick burst but can’t sustain.

When they got about fifty yards away, and by now the warthogs were watching their every move, momma cheetah gave one of the off-spring the ‘go’ sign and the baby took off in pursuit.  The action in our vehicle was heavy.  I ran a pool.  Everyone had the cheetah, except for Andi, who was all over the warthog.  The 100 meters turned into an 880 and dejected, after maybe three or four minutes, the cheetah returned to mom and sibling empty.  The warthogs got the gold, silver and bronze and Andi took the cash.

Our morning was now approaching five hours and Ali suggested we find a safe spot, if there is such a thing, to take a water and coffee break.  Also, anyone that had any personal business to take care of could find a discreet spot behind a hill and ‘mark’ as is the bush jargon.

As the seven us of were standing around, with coffee and cameras, the moment hit me.  On our left were about 100 Impala frolicking; behind us vervet monkeys hanging in the trees and gabbing non-stop; to our right in the distance were elephants strolling and right behind us about fifty zebras who looked like they just busted out of jail.

And I thought to myself- you know I may be a guy who’s totally out of his element, but for a dozen days maybe this jungle stuff is alright!

Today was our last day in Botswana before going to Zimbabwe and Zambia. Below are Andi’s thoughts on the country:

Today I said goodbye to a place where the sky is cloudless, the sunsets are indescribably beautiful, and the people smile warmly from their hearts.  A place with very limited contact or real knowledge of the rest of the world and the ugliness of American politics are a million miles away.  A magical place where humans coexist with zebras, giraffes, hippos, elephants, lions, cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, crocs, wildebeest, impalas, warthogs (my favorite) and more.  I swear, it’s true.  A place where I fell asleep to the sound of what I thought were bamboo wind chimes but were actually singing tree frogs.  Where I could have reached up and picked a star from the night sky.  A place I thought only existed in books or fairytales.  A place that reminded me what it’s like to be a child again.  Botswana, Africa…you are so much more than I expected, and beyond what I am capable of describing.  Beautiful Botswana – I’ll carry you in my heart forever.

August 15, 2016:

So what’s your preferred wake-up mode?

Alarm clock?  iPhone setting?  Music?  Nudged by your s/o?  Or maybe the internal body clock tells you it’s time.

Monday morning at Chiefs Camp in Moremi, Africa there is no phone, so staff comes singing at your cabin front door.  For Andi Berger and me, it wasn’t necessary. We were jolted out of a deep sleep by an all-out baboon brawl on our thatched-grass cabin roof.  Yelling, screaming, scratching, yelping and barking, Andi said it sounded like Jason and Scott when they were kids.  It was no-holds-barred with about ten of them in the donnybrook; the Botswanan edition of king of the roof.

It started as a playful wrestling match but degenerated quickly into fisticuffs, then MMA and ultimately a good ole’ stick-swinging hockey brawl that ended when we stepped out front to watch.  What a bunch of baboons.

Meanwhile, through the ruckus, a sole elephant came strolling through our back-yard looking for Sunday night leftovers.

Monday was also moving day as we packed up Moremi, Africa and boarded our Mack Air flight, 400 miles to the Botswana northwest to a territory known as Kisane/Chopa.  It’s on the Namibia border and we can see Namibia across the Chopa River from our lodge.  I guess that’s a big deal if you ever wanted to see Namibia. The jumbo jet, with all twelve seats full, gave me enough credit to be a Mack Medallion. I really like the way that sounds.

Ali, the greatest game guide of them all whose 45th birthday is today, took us for a final spin in the Reserve before heading out to Kasane. Nobody is sure how he navigates the portion of the 600 square miles we are located, but it goes beyond a miracle how he figures where we are and where we’re going. He said sixteen years’ experience following rhino and elephant tracks will do that to a guy.  After eighteen years, I still can’t find my way back home from Publix.

We can now also check off lions from our ‘to-see’ list. Ali, who more resembles Mike Tyson than his namesake, found some lion tracks and off we went. It took about ten minutes in the bush to find two, full grown and mean looking males, about nine years old.

Lions, like Andi, sleep about 21 hours a day, so we were lucky they were alert, awake, very photogenic and gave a shit less about us gawking at them.  We were as close to them as one would want to be. They cast us a wary eye but were distracted by impala in the distance and the thought of a good fast food lunch.  The impala are known as the McDonald’s of the jungle.  About an hour later, driving some more, this time we found a pride of six lions, with mama eyeing a warthog.  The ‘hog literally got wind and scampered away, with more than enough time to spare, but it’s pretty obvious in the jungle you learn not to trust or turn your back to anyone, any creature or anything.

We also caught up with about 300 cape buffalo that really didn’t take kindly to our sightseeing.  And there are a few less kudu and impala in the jungle today as they were the featured entree at our dinner last night. Grilled kudu and Impala stew. I kid not.  Doesn’t this country have any cows or chickens?

Botswana is an interesting place.  Its land mass is about the size of Texas and it’s 2.1 million population is the same as New Mexico.  They could inflate the population stats for additional parliament seats by including the three million impalas and 250,000 elephants in the reserves, but the honorable nation plays it straight.

Botswana is a peaceful democracy who stress negotiation over violence.  Independent   from the Brits since 1966, they are bordered by countries that either have or still have their fair share of political unrest: South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The government owns all the land.  All of it.  If you want to build a home, you rent the land from the government by signing a 99-year lease and the only equity you have is the physical structure. Which is probably why you can’t find a Trump Tower in Botswana. Their seasons are reversed from ours, and right now Botswana is beginning spring, where temps drop into the low fifties and high forties during the evening and early morning and the sun shines brightly during the day warming to the eighties.

Botswana’s economy is driven by mining and tourism. Their most precious commodity is water, of which there is very little. It’s sad to see how arid and burnt some parts of the jungle are.  Rain is a treasure.

And the government took a major eco-conservation step a couple of years ago, by banning hunting.  What used to be a popular destination for sportsmen is no more.  Guns have been replaced by cameras.  Bravo Botswana!

Sadly about 25% of the people of Botswana are infected with HIV and the average life expectancy is only 52.  That number is slowly creeping higher with proper early education in schools.  The government sponsors the health care industry nationwide.

The currency is the pula and one American dollar equals ten pula.

The hospitality industry, at least the personnel we have been exposed to, couldn’t be nicer or more professional. They make sure they go out of their way to call you by name.

As a matter of fact, since we’ve been here we are called Andi and the Asshole.

August 16-19, 2016:

Andi was right.  No, not that twenty-five years ago she married me, she was right about that too, but when she said “on this trip every time you think you’ve seen it all, there’s always the next day and that’s even better!”

And that’s pretty much the way our initial safari went.  I don’t know that we’ll ever do it again the way we did this one– an Abercrombie and Kent package– as it’s pretty pricey but I’ve got to admit it was worth every expensive dime; first class the entire route; more food and drink thrown your way than on a cruise and sights you’ll never see anywhere else in the world.

And each day really did get better. The first-time shock of seeing elephants and zebra and impala morphed into an appreciation for the tranquility of the setting. We got to see the so called ‘Big Five’ of the animal kingdom: lions, elephant, leopard, cape buffalo and both black and white rhino, which defies odds.  That’s one heck of a power conference. The whole thing was breathtaking.  Not to exclude cheetah, hippo, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, mongoose, jackal, sable, baboon (more common than dogs in the States), eagle, spoonbill stork, crocodile, kudu, monkey, hyena, bush-buck and for a guy scared of birds, I have to admit some of the African variety were pretty colorful.  

We got up close and personal with all the animals.  Save for the domesticated trio of elephants on day one, every other animal was wild.  It’s interesting but the only time a gun was even present was when we were with the domesticated elephants and their handlers; Ali, the greatest, said he didn’t trust them being so close to us.  Thanks for the warning, champ.

By and large we invaded the animal’s habitat.  They owe us nothing.  Ali knew all the right moves to make.  He said if we stayed in the Land Cruiser we were safe.  The animals don’t see us, they see a very large vehicle they don’t want to mess with. He said if we stayed seated and don’t make any loud noises they would never notice us, instead just the vehicle.  However, if we stepped out of the truck, we were probably going to be lunch.

And as weird as it sounds to have elephant, impala, baboons and even a pride of lion in the back of your cabin, there is something very natural and tranquil about the environment.  It’s not anything you get used to, nor take for granted, after all, it’s their house.

And through the three days in the jungle we only felt threatened a couple of times.  Once was by the hippo early in the trip. The other was on the same canoe in the Okavango Delta, piloted by one of the natives.  In the distance, maybe 200 yards away, was a big male elephant who once he saw us, lifted his trunk and after a very long and loud trumpet, started charging us.  Our captain immediately back-peddled our canoe to an area that the elephant felt was safe and non-threading. We found out later his family had crossed a bit earlier and he felt we were trying to prevent him from crossing.  No way big guy, it’s your world and we are only intruding.

Survival is a daily challenge for the wildlife.  There’s clearly a food chain with the lions on top and the more than three million Impala being the burger and fries.  Most fights are not fair ones either, unless it’s an intramural breed battle.  We fortunately didn’t see a kill but we saw a couple of attempts by the lion and leopard. Survival, either as a diner or dinee, is a combination of instinct, smarts and most importantly speed. Yes, it is a jungle out there.

Our group of six, who have little off-the-field commonality but blended into a great travel entourage, left Botswana Wednesday morning and drove to Zimbabwe and Zambia, where we will spend our remaining two nights. Ali said our experience in the bush was a “nine out of 10.”  A kill was the only thing we didn’t see.  But our safari has ended and now we are going to see some damn waterfall.  And they tell me Victoria Falls isn’t just any water falling off a ridge, but the largest bath of its kind in the world. Yawn.  One of the seven wonders of the world.
Double yawn.  The eighth has to be me taking this trip. Frankly, compared to seeing elephants swim across a river, the peaceful zebra grazing or especially a lion pride on the chase, I’d rather be standing in a long line a long customs and immigration line at ATL than watching water fall.

As our bus cruised through three of the four countries that meet on a corner of the continent (Namibia is the fourth) it’s a heck of a way to spend a 25th wedding anniversary.  But it’s not any old drive when you pass elephants walking the side of the road or impala and baboon crossing — they have the traffic right of way. All traffic must stop and let them cross. Try telling that to the commuters on I-95 in Fort Lauderdale.

Zambia and Zimbabwe are both political hotbeds.  Zambia had a contested presidential election last week marked by pre-election violence, which was caused a ten-day halt in campaigning.  Challenger Hakainde Hichilema, a bumper sticker nightmare, ran on a “Make Zambia Great Again” platform.  The incumbent, President Edgar Lungu, flooded the country with “Shit, There’s Nothing Wrong with The Way We Are” signage.  The country agreed and re-elected Lungu.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was elected its leader at age 56 when they achieved independence in 1980.  Thirty-six years later, at 92, he’s still their President.  And despite splintering support and failing health, he plans to run again in 2018 at age 94.  But he’s mentally still sharp as a tack. In fact, just last month, in an attempt to increase Zimbabwe’s aid package from the United States, Mugabe placed a phone call to President Reagan.

And even though we’ve left the jungle we still must take our anti-malaria medication, Malarone, for the next week.  It comes with restrictions and warnings:  no operating heavy machinery, which for me an E-Class automobile is as big as it gets; it can cause nightly hallucinations, which I’m still waiting for and the big one, no breastfeeding.  Andi reminds me of that daily. I hate Malarone.

But if there was any doubt about how important the Malarone really is, as we crossed from Zimbabwe into Zambia we were met by a billboard, that even on my most creative day, I couldn’t make-up:

“If you have fever or aches and pains, you may have malaria.  Welcome to Zambia.”

I’m doubting the national tourism bureau placed that signage, but it sure puts giving up driving heavy machinery and sacrificing breast feeding in proper perspective.

Thank you for taking our 25th anniversary journey with us.  It was much more than I ever imagined.

If a trip like this is on your list, do it.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

You may forget a about a weekend in Vegas but you will never forget Africa.

Take my word.

Shalom y’all, from the jungle.

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