Friday, November 29, 2013

The Rainy Season Red Lagoon Roads of Zambia

The day started out badly with the discovery of a broken spring leaf. Then Scott sneezed and farted at the same time – never a good idea when your drinking water comes from Lake Tanganyika.
We had a long drive ahead of us from Ndole Bay to Kasama on one of the worst roads in Zambia. After two hours of organ rearranging dips and drops at an average speed of 19 kilometers an hour we hadn’t gotten very far. Suddenly we began hearing a swarming mass of cicadas all around us. Only it wasn’t cicadas, it was our vehicle. In the past when the Landy makes “funny” sounds like whirring or grinding or ticking we look at each other and say, “Let’s give it a moment and see if it stops.” Usually the sound disappears without us ever knowing what caused it. But this time the hissing was accompanied by extreme heat coming from below the gear stick – so extreme that when we stopped the Landy at the top of a rise I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the back. We were between sparsely populated villages and nothing was on the road but lagoon size potholes so we began to explore the source of the noise and heat. I started looking through the three Land Rover manuals we have on board while Scott looked under the car. The closest thing to the cicada noise I could find in the manual was “loud whirring”. “It might be the gear box,” I said, “maybe we’re low on fluid.”
“Oh no.” Scott said from beneath the car. “We lost the plug, the bolt that holds the fluid in. It must have been ejected on that really bad pothole back there.”
“Which pothole? The first one, or one of the 193 after?”
We searched through our collection of jiggled off nuts, bolts and screws in the toolbox trying to find a close match. No luck. So we began looking for a bolt we could steal from somewhere else on the vehicle. The ones connecting the bumper were too small. The high lift jack bolt was almost the right size but when Scott tried it, it wouldn’t catch the threads. A while later, two men came along. Once we explained/pantomimed the problem, they wanted to help. At first they just got under the car with Scott and watched what he did. Then they joined me topside in looking for a bolt to poach from somewhere else on the car. They didn’t speak English but hearing Scott ask me for various tools and watching him they quickly saw the advantages of our equipment and they began requesting “vice grip”, “spanner”, and “wrench” as if they were medics on the TV series M.A.S.H. demanding sutures or a scalpel STAT!

Dennis unscrewed the bolt holding the bumper. “See? Too small,” Scott repeated showing them the size we needed. 
Meanwhile three more men toting hoes and machetes came along the road. When Dennis saw them he quickly covered the tools and toolbox with our small tarp and communicated with “no no” hands and a low voice that it wouldn’t be a good idea for these men to see our valuables. But the men stopped and soon Dennis’ desire to find a bolt that would match won out over his concern so the tools came out and the bolt from the high lift jack came off again. I remarked to one of the recent arrivals that I liked his unbelievably shiny lilac colored shoes with a silver orb and cross buckle. Immediately they looked at my shoes, an old pair of Keens. I could tell they were discussing the merits of owning such a pair of shoes. Often Africans we meet ask us to give them our shoes. They all stared at my feet and I knew they would have asked for them if they knew the words. I could tell that one of them said, “Eee! But her feet are too big anyway!” because they all laughed and went back to watching Scott or unscrewing bolts on the car. Scott found a likely replacement in at the bottom of his toolbox but it was too thick and far too long so he got out the saw and began cutting through the metal by hand. Only a man would think of this. He put one foot on top of the bumper, placed the too long bolt under his left foot and sawed. Sweat dripped from his face and his blue t-shirt, covered with red earth from lying under the car became damp. Dennis took over sawing and after ten more minutes we had a shorter length of threads. “Everybody, pray!” I said. But it was too big so out came the saw again to slice a channel at the top. “Maybe I can squeeze it in,” Scott hoped. 
But it was still too big. In the end, he used the bolt off the high lift jack, which was too small, but he fashioned a sleeve from a piece of spare gas hose that gave the bolt enough bite to hold. Meanwhile I had been looking through the manuals for the location of where to add gearbox fluid (miraculously, we had an almost full, never used, jug of gearbox fluid with us). “OK, ‘the filter plug is located at the rear of the transfer box’,” I said reading from the manual, item 37-2.
I dug out the little funnel we use to fill our water bottles and Dennis and the four other men made one end of the gas hose fit into the funnel neck by slicing away the plastic sheath using Scott’s Leatherman knife. There was discussion about the odd looking tool, the knife and it’s sharpness. They poured the really stinky fluid in to the funnel while Scott, under the car again, held the low end of the gas hose to the fill plug opening. 
It took ages for two liters to find it’s way to the gearbox and when the funnel was empty for the last time, Dennis even put his lips on the hose and blew the last dregs of oil down the tube. “Uh, that stuff is toxic,” I said while bent over and fake puking. “It’ll make you sick.” Dennis wiped his lips and another of the men brought me the dust filled top end of a small water bottle, cap in place and asked for a little oil. “Bicycle,” he said. He used his shirt to wipe out the dust but you couldn’t tell afterwards because his shirt, like the shirts of all the men, had long ago took on the rusty red color of the roads of Zambia’s rainy season. Two and a half hours had passed.

“Zicomo! Thank you!" we said. A little money and a box of Eet Sum More biscuits was appreciated, but they squealed with enthusiasm when I said I would take their photo in front of the Landy. 

Off we went, stopping every 5 then 10 then 40 kilometers to make sure the McGiver-ed bolt was holding. “I’ve been waiting for the third bad thing to happen today and now it has,” said Scott.
“Three? I can only think of two, the broken spring and now the gearbox. What’s the third thing?”I asked.
“When I sneeze-farted,” he said.
“Oh, you’re right. That’s the turd thing.”
The road only became worse. Our final destination kept changing, as the day grew longer.
We hoped to make it to the town of Mporokosa, a large, dusty, out in the middle of nowhere town, before dark, and we did. We stopped at the only accommodation listed in our GPS, The Holiday Rest House. It was Friday night and eight men sat on the porch of the hotel drinking beer. The place had a weird vibe but beggars can’t be choosy so Scott went inside to inquire if we could camp there. Meanwhile, I watched the men on the porch and the few women lingering around the men. I began to sense that the Holiday Rest House wasn’t what it seemed. Yep, we had pulled in to the “No-tell Motel.” We had camped on the grounds of a brothel in Addis Ababa Ethiopia once and I wasn’t excited about a repeat. As Scott walked back over to the car, a heavily intoxicated man, with the most blood shot eyes I’ve ever seen, met him at my window and, with all the concentration he could muster said, “I would advise you not to stay here tonight.”
“Oh. Really? Why?”  
“I am a teacher by profession and I have to advise you that it would be better if you do not stay here tonight. It's” he said coming up with the best word he could think of to convince us to leave and making him our second Good Samaritan of the day. We drove away knowing that now we would have to bush camp. 
At 5:30 we began looking for a good bush camp – secluded, off the road, not close to a village. But we discovered that while there was plenty of seclusion – the bush was like a jungle – the earth was so sticky from the rains that we were sure to get bogged once we pulled off the road. Driving after dark in Africa is never the best idea but we hadn’t seen any wildlife and the route was not heavily populated by people so we were unlikely to hit anything, and in 10 hours we had seen only 5 other vehicle so risk of a head on was minimal, so we kept driving. The road continued to be a backbreaking chain of rusty red lagoon sized potholes inexplicably interspersed with short sections of brand new tarmac. Every time we found ourselves on tarmac our sails filled with wind again and we’d say, “If it’s like this, we might as well drive all the way to Kasama!” Then we would suddenly be on a road so deeply potholed that we felt like a ship being tossed side to side by stormy seas.
  At 10PM, after 15 hours on the road, the thing we have most worried about the entire trip happened. The road suddenly became a ravine that was narrowing to a chasm. The driver side wheels dropped into the abyss and N’doto heaved heavily to the right. “Nooooo! Hang on, we’re going over!” Scott said struggling with the steering wheel and willing N’doto to take flight. I held tight to the window frame and braced my feet against the floor. Just as we could feel the momentum of no return, THUD!, the front right wheel sank deeply into a hole and we came to an abrupt, 30-degree angle, stop. We sat in silence. Scott was trapped, his door up against the ravine wall.  It was decide that I would climb out to see the damage. The tire was stuck in deep. There was no way we were driving forward. “Maybe we can back up.” But the car wouldn’t start. Then, a miracle. After only ten minutes we could see headlights coming towards us. I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “Will they help us, or hurt us.” Soon a van stopped above us. Four well-dressed Good Samaritan Zambians came over. “We’re stuck,” I said. Scott called, “Hello!” from inside the car and crawled out the passenger side door. One of the men suggested we push the car backwards. I got behind the steering wheel but the the car wouldn’t budge. We were bogged in tight and the angle wasn’t helping any either. “How about a jack?” another man asked. One bolt shy from our earlier repair, it was easy to detach the high lift jack from the rear of the car. Three women appeared from the van and began collecting stones to place under the front wheel. The jack was released and after 10 minutes the car finally started. I put it in reverse and drove backwards along the narrow valley trying to keep the wheels from sliding back down while the driver of the van directed, “Now turn your wheels like this,” he said using his hands. “Now go straight back!” When it felt like N’doto was going over again I whimpered and Mulunga pointed at Scott and said, “Now I think he should drive.” Once Scott was behind the wheel it was decided that climbing the bank and going forward might be better than reversing. I held my breath as Scott revved the engine and the Landy labored up the bank. While Scott drove onto flat road I thanked Mulunga for stopping. “I’m a nurse”, he said, “I had to stop. Your vehicle was at such an angle I thought someone might be hurt.” (We’re completely fine, only had to change our undies.)

Two hours later, around midnight, after 16 hours on the road, exhaust pipe growling, cracked spring leaf shuddering, gearbox kaput, we bush camped just outside the one traffic light size town of Kasama. “Without days like this, it wouldn’t be a true Africa overland adventure,” said Scott with a smile as we climbed into our rooftop tent.
As uncomfortable and sometimes scary the day had been we felt strangely satisfied with the way things had worked out. We had kept our cool, problem solved nicely (I just kept asking myself, What would Martha O’Kane do?), and met a lot of nice people who didn’t ask us for anything. A lot more good than bad had come from the experience. It still is a Safari Jema. And the next morning serendipity – always a theme in our travels – struck big. The one auto shop in town is owned and run by Michael a Zambian who drove, built, owned, and maintained several old Landys just like ours over the years. “I can rebuild a gearbox blindfolded!” he said. He’s a great guy and the parts and labor are more than reasonable so we took a room at the Kasama Lodge (where all the other guests are Zambian Government officials) and we’re getting a laundry list of repairs and delayed maintenance done on the car over the next few days before heading into Tanzania and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is on the list of “want to go” but we’ll decide that after we get information on the condition of the one road in the entire country. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost but we’re not excited about subjecting the Landy to any more part breaking roads than we have to.


Scott and Tris
Kasama, Zambia

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bread, Ice Cream and Gin

(Read, Trip Interruptus, N'doto Seized first)

Our time in California was both tough and nurturing. My niece Teresa let us stay in her backyard cottage amongst apple trees and pear trees and hummingbirds. Every morning we walked a few feet through her garden to a cradle of comfort food, her kitchen. During our stay she baked apple pie and 10 (TEN) loaves of homemade bread. Not bread machine bread. Real, fed from starter for several days, hand kneaded every 30 minutes for 4 hours, delicious, made with love, topped with Irish Butter, good for coping, Italian bread. She brought home chutney made by her colleague at Yahoo! “The French lady” and was inspired to create her own chutneys. We sat around Teresa’s coffee table tasting 3 variations with Brie or Gorgonzola or triple cream Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk. Some twilights we had a Gin and Tonic and every night we ate ice cream -- pumpkin, chocolate or mint flavored.
We also received incredible support and much appreciated distraction from my family. They understood why we were home and made no demands on us. My brother Sean made everything easier when he lent us his truck for the duration of our stay. My comedienne niece Clare drove all the way up from LA just to see us. (Not really, but I like to think that she would even if she didn’t have a gig in San Jose. I love her to pieces.) I had BLT’s with my brother Joe who lent an ear and made me laugh. My nephew Kevin and his bride Stacie offered love, food and wine, and I was able to visit with my sister-in-law Ann and see that in 7 months my nephew Colin has become even more handsome and kind-hearted. We had “Pizzeria Night” at Teresa’s with my gorgeous and fun-loving niece Briget and her sweet Otis with his charming children all. Dear neighbors opened their hearts and homes to us and listened to stories of Africa and of loss until it was time for us to go. It felt very strange to be home, yet not really back.

Most every day Scott made the drive from San Jose to Fremont to sit by his mother’s bedside asking her if there was anything she needed, or he’d read to her – letters she had written while living in Mexico for 10 years, or passages from a favorite book ­­­until one of his incredibly tireless and doting siblings replaced him. Then, as is no doubt true for every mother the world over, Jane, all her children about her, sort of perked up. She began to eat a little and smiled when told she was loved. As the days and weeks went on Jane’s condition became so unchanged that one-day, after almost 4 weeks of vigil, John returned home to Texas and Scott came home and booked return flights to Africa. “Jane is a very strong woman,” said the nurse. Lindy and Brian, who live near Jane, would continue attending to their mom as they have been for the last year.

We made our way back to Lusaka on four flights. We missed our last connection, the one that was supposed to get us to the Zambian Customs office at noon. Instead we arrived at the Lusaka airport 3 hours late, sure that everyone would have left work, or “knocked off” as they say here, by the time we would get to Customs. It was Friday afternoon and rush hour had begun. Scott was having kittens. We finally found a taxi driver and as much as we wanted to get to the office as fast as possible, the last thing you want to tell your driver in Africa is, “make haste!” so we just said, “We must get to the Customs Office before it closes.” Scott sat beside Abel staring at the road, with each slow kilometer becoming more anxious. I sat in the back looking out the window and commented how beautifully green Zambia had become since we left. “Yes, the rains have begun,” said Abel.  “Don’t worry,” he added. “Office workers wouldn’t knock off until 5PM, even on a Friday.” and we drove into the Customs Office parking lot with only minutes to spare. We looked anxiously into the lot behind, “the warehouse” where all the seized vehicles were parked. I swear, the sun came out from behind the clouds. The Range Rover was still there watching over N’doto! I cannot describe the relief we felt. Abel parked under a tree and helped me carry bags to our Landy while Scott, stamped copy of our letter of understanding tightly clasped in his hand, went inside. I peeked in the windows and saw that everything was exactly as we had left it. Even the GPS charger still lay on the front seat. I had a set of keys so I opened the rear door and explored. The stuff in the secret place was there. Even the stuff in the super secret place was there. I took out one of our camp chairs and sat in the shade of a seized semi truck and waited. Twenty minutes later Scott still had not appeared. I walked around the lot, exploring how we would drive out. In front of N’doto was a moat. No kidding. A moat. And behind N’doto was a Toyota Corolla parked almost directly across her stern. I looked for something to span the moat, something strong enough to drive a Landy across. There were some huge pieces of concrete lying about but there was no way I could have lifted them. So I found the Windex and started cleaning the windows. I had just moved on to buffing the headlights when Scott came across the lawn with a stack of stamp-laden paperwork and the keys. Success!
“Hooray!” I said. “You were gone so long I was starting to get worried.”
“I had to go to several offices. Each time I was directed to another office they’d say, ‘but they might have knocked off by now’. Fortunately everyone was still there. And they all remembered us. They said,  ‘Oh yes. The medical emergency Landy.”
“There’s one little problem,” and I pointed to the Corolla blocking our escape.
“Arrgh!” Scott clutched his head in both hands. As I had done, he briefly looked for something to span the moat. “I’ll ask them to move the Toyota,” he said hesitantly. Going back in felt risky. We had the keys. We had the stamps. We were in the clear! If Scott went back inside, someone might think of a reason the Landy had to remain seized or say, “Come back Monday.”

Scott soon reappeared followed by Alfred, a customs official who had come to examine the problem. “The man with the keys has knocked off,” said Scott.
Another man came out to see the trapped Landy. The three men studied the gap between the Corolla and the back end of the dark blue semi truck in silence as if working a puzzle. “It is not possible to move this blue truck. Keys do not exist for this truck,” Alfred said. He moved to the Corolla and spread his arms to measure the gap. He stood back and pondered.
 After a time Scott said, “You know, if we had enough guys, we might be able to ‘bounce’ the Corolla over a few feet. We used to do that all the time at my fraternity where I lived at University,” he added. 
“If you do that, I’ll video it.” I said and for some reason this made solving the dilemma more interesting to Alfred.
There followed a lot of discussion, and pointing, and measuring, and arm waving, and casual weight testing of the Toyota.
Then Scott, beaming with the satisfaction of a man who has come up with a brilliant idea, began wind-milling his arms like a preacher inciting fervor from his flock, said again with more gusto, “If we can get MORE GUYS, I think we can bounce this car over!” Alfred left to get more men.

Soon there were 5 more men (pedestrians on their way to the long distance bus station next door) gathered around the Corolla. All were keen. The first attempt fell flat due to the fact that the Corolla had one. A flat. “Okay, so we must pick (peek) it up and move it.” Alfred was in charge now. “One, two, THREE!” (thrrree) and they all heaved at once. “Again!” commanded Alfred. The female security guard left her post and came to help. “Again! Once more!” Then the tape measure came out and all could see that there was just enough space now for the Landy to back out. All it took was 6 heaves.

I got behind the wheel while the men, hands spinning chest level as if they were at the helm, directed, “Madam, now turn (tun) your wheel all the way. Turn it. Turn it. Now, straight, straight. Strrraight!”
“Zicomo! Thank you!” I exclaimed when I was finally through the narrows nearly shy one side mirror. Scott wanted to show his gratitude. “Thank you so much! I’d like to buy you all a beer, or a Coke.” But when he held out a large bill, the only denomination we had, no one rushed to take it. It amounted to around $3 for each man. Were they hesitant because they would have trouble breaking the bill and dividing it fairly? Did they think they would be in trouble with Alfred for accepting the money?  Alfred took a few steps back and threw his hands in the air; he didn’t want part of anything that looked like a bribe. Finally one man reached out with a smile and accepted the cash. They moved away as one body, strangers joined together by a Toyota Corolla and twenty dollars.

Around midnight on November 17, two weeks after we arrived back in Zambia, Jane, hopefully comforted and gratified that all her children had come to say goodbye, passed peacefully away.

It’s strange to be back, but not really home. 

Ndole Bay Lodge, Lake Tanganyika, Zambia

Trip Interruptus, N'doto Seized

Trip Interruptus, N’doto Seized

It’s happened before and will no doubt happen again. Someone we love becomes seriously ill and we have to end our trip early or return home for a few weeks. That’s what happened last month when we received word that Scott’s mom, unwell for some time, was entering hospice back home in California.

We drove south along the Great North Road, back the way we had come. We talked about which airport we would use and where we would store our vehicle. When we arrived at Pioneer Camp outside of Lusaka owner Paul Barnes was more than happy watch over our Landy during our absence. It seemed our exit from Africa would be fairly straightforward. Except for one thing. Each time we cross a border we apply for a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for our 40-year-old Land Rover and our T.I.P. was 3 days from expiring. We looked up the penalties for overstaying a T.I.P. in Zambia ($150 per day - not a figure that made us comfortable asking for forgiveness rather than permission) and we searched the location of Zambian Customs in Lusaka where we would appeal for an extension. After an hour in the tedious slow ooze that is Lusaka traffic flow, we were on the second floor, room 5 of the Zambia Port Customs Office seated across from Mr. Dennis Mwikisi.

Dennis was tired. Or he seemed tired. Or sick. He slumped, half draped over his desk. He could barely keep his eyes open as we told our story. His mumbled words came from beneath his right hand, which he periodically ran over his face and head as if he were trying to wipe us, and our tale of woe, from his memory. His other arm looked tired too as it was working to hold up his head.
“Not possible,” Dennis burbled into his hand after we requested an extension. We politely implored. After some discussion and, “Sorry, but would you please repeat that please?” Dennis, eager to be rid of us so he could rest, granted a 30-day extension with the proviso that our vehicle be stored in the Customs Vehicle Seizure lot, not at Pioneer camp. 
“Isn’t there any way we can get a longer extension? And can’t we leave our vehicle at Pioneer?”  Scott pushed.
“No,” gasped Dennis. I began to worry that Dennis would expire before our T.I.P. would. His head was almost flat on his desk. Then, from the depths of his responsibilities as a bureaucrat, he suddenly gathered enough strength to say, “Go to the head office on Cairo Road and ask for Mr. Christopher Mwango. Perhaps he can help you.”

So off we went, to the heartbeat of Lusaka that is Cairo Road.

Mr. Mwango was not anywhere near as lethargic as Dennis. Christopher was happily busy at his desk, sitting upright and beaming as broadly as the man in the photo above him – Mr. Michael Sata, the President of Zambia. Nothing held his head up but his neck.
“Fine, fine. Yes, how can I help you?” he said brightly after we introduced ourselves and asked after his health. We explained our situation.
“Oh no, I’m very sorry to hear your news, but extensions past 30 days are impossible.” He paused. “You might see Mr. Dennis Mwikisi at the Port office and inquire with him.”
“We have been to see Mr. Mwikisi and he suggested we see you. The thing is, my mother’s condition is…indefinite. It would be helpful if we had more than 30 days.” And Scott lobbed and Christopher returned until Mr. Mwango finally agreed to extra days. “But you must return to Mr. Mwikisi who will arrange the necessary paperwork. I will phone him now and tell him you are coming. You’ll be charged a storage fee of 18 Kwatcha ($3.00) per day until you return to Zambia.” He rose and extended his hand indicating the match was over. “In any event,” he said merrily, “technically speaking, three days from now, when your T.I.P. expires, we will seize your vehicle.”
We thanked Mr. Mwango for his time and alertness. As I walked out of the office I stopped in the doorway and as an afterthought said, “By the way, what happens if we aren’t back in the time allotted?”
“Then,” he said gravely, “you must buy your vehicle back at public auction.”

“Hurry,” I said to Scott as he drove back towards Mr. Mwikisi’s office. “By the time we get there, Dennis could be on life support!”
We stopped at an Internet CafĂ© and quickly composed a “letter of understanding” detailing our discussions with Mr. Mwikisi and Mr. Mwango. “It’s probably only worth the paper it’s written on but it can’t hurt and it might help,” Scott said as a second copy printed.

Back at Dennis’ office we were cheered to see that he was awake, if not more erect. Scott presented the extension agreement we had prepared.  Dennis, elbows splayed out on the desk and holding the document in both hands, not only read the agreement word by word he corrected the spelling of his last name! Then he did something you long to see a government official do when you are requesting the impossible. He stamped it! He stamped the copy too and handed it back to Scott.
“All right,” (all rrrrright) he said, eyes once again at half-mast. “Bring your vehicle tomorrow and I will show you where you can park (pock) it.”

Subdued, we drove back to Pioneer Camp. As we neared the gate Scott turned to me. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then we talked about all the bad things that could happen. The car could be striped. It could be stolen. If we overstayed our extension we would have to buy her back at auction. What would that cost? We surrendered to the unknown. “It is what it is,” said Scott. “We really have no choice.”

The next morning as Scott drove away I said farewell to our Landy and everything inside her, all we owned in Africa: tools, bedding, a library of books, pots and pans, shoes, clothes, and a pantry full of food. Scott told me later that he parked her next to a seized Range Rover, which for some reason, made me feel better. As if her younger yet more successful brother would watch over her while we were away. The next day we flew back to California not knowing how long we would be gone and wondering if we would ever see N’doto again.

Next: Bread, Ice-Cream and Gin

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Videos of Africa are now on YouTube Channel

Videos of the journey "Around Africa in a 40-year-old Land Rover named N'doto" can now be seen at Teresa's YouTube Channel. Videos include the Landy crossing the Luangwa River by hand-pulled Pontoon Ferry, Prides of lions, The Dancing bridge of Kamanjoma, Elephant charges, Hyenas feasting and much more.

More videos in production (with my new camera so you won't have to listen to the sand grinding in the mechanism whenever I zoom...): Climbing Kilimanjaro,  Flying a light sport aircraft while viewing animals below, The island of Lamu, the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan and more.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Life Aboard N'doto

It’s not a walk in the woods living in a 40-year-old Land Rover. Not a cushy ride, or a temperature controlled one either. What policemen laughingly refer to as my A/C, is a intermittently working (never when it’s hot) small dash-mounted house fan with vibrant blue blades. Sometimes it spontaneously and unexpectedly comes to life, usually the moment after I have cleansed my face with a TLC Deep Cleanse 3- in-1 Cleanser, Toner, Moisturizer Facial Wipe. The resulting plume of dust sticks to my face like static on a nylon slip. After that, nothing but a Huggies Aloe Strong and Stretchy Wipe will remove the heavy layer of grime on my face.

Living in N’doto is about as far away from a spa day as one could get.  Rubber seal that once surrounded all the doors and windows has been replaced by gaps as wide as my pinkie finger. There is also a silver dollar sized hole in the floorboard near the gearbox that spews a puff of dust and smoke into the car every time we start her up. Particles of tawny colored talcum-powder-quality dust cover the seats, the bookcase, the storage bins and every other surface inside of N’doto like a coat of paint. When we wash our clothes, a significant amount of African topsoil is washed down the drain. We could avoid most of the dust if we stuck to the tar roads but we prefer the dirt, sand, or gravel tracks because they seem to take us to the most beautiful places. Like the Old Petauke Road, worth every grain of grit collected along its 180 kilometer, off road, 9-hour drive. Or where we are now, camped along the Luangwa River in Zambia one of the best riverbanks in the world to view wildlife, read, write and have a gin and tonic. Elephants abound. So much so that instead of the usual passports, cash and other documents that travelers turn in for safekeeping at reception, safes at camps along the Luangwa River are full of citrus fruit brought in by campers who forget that elephants will do anything to get at a juicy orange. Just the other night a shell-shocked novice camper fumed, “An elephant broke into our Toyota and helped himself to whatever he wanted!” They only stayed one night. I locked our oranges, and other strong smelling food in the camp bar safe but the gin and tonic remains in our fridge chilled and ready for sundowners at 5. Yes, we have a fridge! It’s 12 volt, small, and always dusty on the outside but inside, the beer, wine, veggies, cheese, meats, and juice keep cold and food stays fresh even a day or two past the use by date.

Mornings, beginning at dawn, are easy and unrushed. We don’t have much on board in the luxury department but one thing we can’t do without is good coffee so we enjoy two cups of French Press coffee with two rusks – an African hard, crunchy dunk-in-your coffee staple - apiece each morning before starting our day. Lunch is a picnic. Chips provide salty crunch.

What’s in the dashboard? Peaceful Sleep insect repellent (elephants hate it too so if we are bush camping I usually give a blast to the windows and doors before we retire), toilet paper for the nose and/or “other”, Huggies Strong and Stretchy (so many uses I can’t list them here), an old Advil bottle filled with a combination of ibuprofen and aspirin, what I call my Obama-care because it’s wrapped in a Obama for President ’08 bumper sticker, a Chinese version of Vaseline Intensive Care Body Lotion, sunglass and eyeglass cases, head torch, pens and pencils, a glue stick, GPS, and a camera fill in any gaps. Scott keeps a wildlife sound recorder in his cup holder; mine holds a stainless steel water bottle. We can get clean drinking water at most every camp. Usually it’s borehole water so might taste a little chalky but it is clean.

We also have a library on board. It’s filled with guidebooks, wildlife reference books, our dangerous game log books, and books we have been given (thank you Brian Block and Karl Nutt) or swapped for at various camps along the way.

In the slot inside my door, there is a poo shovel, a Southern Africa map, an Eastern and Southern Africa map, and a map of the entire continent of Africa, just in case we get super motivated to head further north than Kenya.

The front seat, kind of a bench seat really, is covered in gray pleather (plastic leather) and I’m sure at one time it provided some kind of cushioning though now it is as flat as a pancake. We let each other know its time for a break when one of us exclaims; “My ass is numb!” which is pretty frequent. The back seat isn’t really a seat at all. It’s more of a perch. We acquired it from the man who installed our second carburetor (we are now on our third.)
The seat came out of one of several old Series lll Land Rovers that lay scattered in his yard like fallen soldiers. It’s one of those L-shaped bench seats that used to go in the far back of Land Rovers for sideways sitting. But Scott found a creative way to attach it to the false floor boards behind the front passenger seat, next to the library so that we would have a super uncomfortable place for people to sit in the back. We added a few inches added to the seat and had it re-upholstered in Hoedspruit so now it is a super uncomfortable, yet more cushioned place to sit in the back. We have found that it is perfect for small African children, though those not yet potty trained are relegated to the pleather (washable) seats in front. (See No Pampers North of the Limpopo to see why.)

Giving rides to people in the bush, especially to old woman, has become a regular thing. Woman walk incredible distances carrying heavy loads, babies, and Africa on their backs. 
They rarely speak English. Since our doors are very difficult to open Scott comes around to help them out when we arrive at their villages. One African woman was so old and frail, Scott had to lift her into and out of the car. She must have been walking more than an hour in the dust and heat before we came along. Men, woman, and children sitting in the shade of a tree of her village were gobsmacked to see this tall blond haired blue-eyed shorts and t-shirt clad chauffeur pull alongside, open the passenger door and extend a hand to her as if she were royalty. There is usually applause, two claps of cupped hands and a wave of the hand before our passengers set off on another narrow path that leads to their hut. They never look back. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we are often the only vehicle to pass all day and in really remote areas, all week.  Why do we do it? Partly as a way of giving back to a continent and people that inspire us and have given us so much. Partly because we’ve never forgotten how hard it was to get transport through Africa when we did it by bush taxi in 2005. We vowed that if we ever had our own vehicle in Africa we would give rides, so we are.

We have established a routine when arriving in camp. I get behind the wheel and park N‘doto so that we can enjoy sunrise from inside the rooftop tent and so the table and chairs can be convenient to the back door (panty), yet situated in an aesthetically pleasing way.
When she is exactly where I want her, Scott gets behind the wheel and moves her to a spot that is level. He flips open the tent, attaches the ladder and fly, unfolds the table and chairs and pours himself a gin and tonic, which is always well deserved after a day of rough driving in Africa. I wipe down the table that has acquired the obligatory layer of dust, move the tables and chairs to a slightly more pleasing spot and spread out a small white tablecloth (kept white by using the local diaper cleaning soap. Don’t knock it. It’s gentle on the hands yet does the trick on tough stains!) Then we enjoy the sunset while I cook dinner over our single burner propane stove. This is always a highly enjoyable time of day. We are relaxed over sundowners, I love cooking in the bush and Scott seems to enjoy watching me cook in the bush.
We talk about where we might go next, or how we will get to Karl and Mandy’s wedding in South Africa in October, or if and when we should attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. Showers or liberal use of Huggies Aloe Strong and Stretchys fit in sometime between arrival and bedtime. Sometimes we sit around a campfire chatting to other overlanders or sometimes there is a camp bar where we go for conviviality. “Let’s be convivial,” I’ll say, or “This place looks convivial. Let’s have a beer.” The other day, at Eureka Camp outside of Lusaka, we ran into a hyper convivial couple from Portland Oregon. “Don’t I know you?” I asked when the woman threw a wide, enthusiastic smile in my direction. Serendipity seems to rain on us when we travel in Africa and we are always running into people we’ve met before so I thought we had met in Hoedspruit, or on the Kariba Ferry, or somewhere sometime over the last five and a half months. “We were on Amazing Race!” she said. No wonder she has that reality show perkiness, I thought. They didn’t make it to the end of the race but they fell in love with Malawi while on competing on the show so they returned to Africa, this time on an overland truck.

We rise and fall with the sun so bedtime comes early. We sleep great. Almost every morning Scott says, “I never sleep so well as I do in Africa.” His ability to sleep so soundly in the wilds of Africa can frustrate me at times. Like the other night when we had to bush camp along the Old Petauke Road because we had not reached our destination before the setting sun. One thing is for sure. It is not safe to drive after dark in Africa. Anyway, we had just passed a small herd of agitated elephants and another smaller herd sleeping; the sun was about to set and it was time to pull over. We drove into the bush, far from the track and away from any village. Scott quickly flipped the tent out and installed the ladder. We skipped the table and chairs and stove and opted for a bed picnic. It wasn’t long before the first hippo bellowed and the elephants began to rumble and trumpet. A hyena whooped in the distance. Though we couldn’t see in the dark, something big was right there in the bushes below our tent. Because we have heard too many stories lately of elephants overturning cars, we discussed an exit strategy. We left the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition so if we had to, we could make a quick getaway. We ate quietly. Scott had a gin and tonic, then another. I was tempted to join him. It had been a long, hard, hot day of driving and bush taxi service but I didn’t think dulling our senses when there were ellies about would be a good idea. “Don’t you think we should keep our wits about us – that we should be alert?”

“That’s just what the world needs. More Lerts!” Scott said taking a sip of Gilbert’s Gin (Not a mistype. Not Gilbeys, Not Gordons. Certainly not Tanqueray which we ran out of long ago, but Gilbert’s, bottled on Lomagundi Road in a fictional, I think, town called Stapleford South Africa and purchased with our last Rands at a shop next to the Mblizi Zambezi Lodge adjacent to the Kariba Ferry,) “That’s not what I meant by keep your wits,” I said surrendering.

Scott slept through the night, like a good baby. I got maybe two hours. There was no moon that night so I couldn’t see what was going bump in the night but each time I heard a rustle or a heavy footfall I would peer out the front screen then rotate around and peer out the back, all night long like a spin dial on a board game. “Who’s out there?” I whispered to myself straining my eyes to see what looked like a hulk of an elephant but moved like a hippo.

“I never sleep so well as I do in Africa!” said Scott at sunrise.
“Sheesh! You missed it all!” I said with exasperation.
“What did I miss?”
“I don’t know! But there was lots of it!”

It is nearly 6p.m. and the Gilbert’s is waiting. Elephants are beginning to head down to the river while hippos are beginning their slow meander up the banks for a night of grazing. There is a soft breeze, which is a welcome relief from the dry Zambian heat. We miss everyone at home, that’s for sure. But we so enjoy this lifestyle.
We have plenty of canned tuna, Peaceful Sleep, optimism, and curiosity on board so, for now, we’ll keep going. Maybe there are people further north who would like a lift in an old Landy named N’doto.

Scott and Tris
South Luangwa

Thursday, August 22, 2013

No Pampers North of The Limpopo

Scott and I love Greek Salad. We have been lucky to find all the ingredients, even Feta Cheese, at most South African markets such as Pik ‘n Pay or Spar, and we even found a tub of Danish Feta in a Kruger Park mini mart. But as we drove out of South Africa and into Botswana, we wondered if there would be any Feta north of the Limpopo.  We finished our last Greek Salad before crossing the Limpopo River and bid farewell to Feta Cheese and Calamata olives, and hello to Tris and Scott’s Bush Taxi Service.

In 2005, when we traveled from Casablanca to Cape Town, we traveled the continent mostly by bush taxi. Throughout Africa we stood along the sides of dusty roads overheated and hopeful for a lift. With our right arms extended at a forty-five degree angle we waved our hands, palm side down, in the international “please stop” fashion at any passing mode of transport. Every vehicle we encountered (granted, there weren’t many on our route), zoomed by, windows rolled up to keep the cool air inside and nary a glance from the driver our direction. In ten months of travel only one white person ever stopped to give us a lift. He really had no choice. Scott was practically carrying me down the road and the lift was to the hospital where I was to be admitted for malaria treatment. Anyway, we never forgot how difficult it was to get from point A to point B and we vowed that if we were ever lucky enough to have our own vehicle in Africa, we would offer free transport to those in need. Since arriving in Botswana, we have had many opportunities to do so.

Our first passenger was a woman trying to get to the next town to visit her sick brother in hospital. After exchanging hellos and names she sat quietly staring at the road in front of us. After a time she began to laugh. “Something is funny?” I asked from my spot next to her in the middle seat straddling the gear stick.
“It is not common for white people to pick up a black person on the road in Africa!” she said with bemusement.
“Evidentially, it’s not common for white people to pick up white people either!” I said.

A week later we passed a woman dressed in heels, a straight skirt, ivory blazer, and matching hat; somewhat like Africa’s version of a Mary Kay Saleswoman still eager to earn a pink Cadillac. We slowed and reversed to offer her a ride. She accepted with a radiant smile. In perfect English she greeted us with dressed-for-success enthusiasm. Joyce was on her way home to the next town 35 kilometers away. I asked about her family and if she worked. “Yes! I am self-employed,” she answered. “In fact, I would like you to join my company.” And she told us about how she sold vitamins for a company called Golden and that if I started selling vitamins too, rather buying them from her and re-selling, we could both make money. “Please join my company!” she said again.
“Uh, unfortunately we are headed to Zimbabwe so, logistically, I don’t think it would work. But thank you for the offer.” She accepted that cheerfully and fell silent, staring at the road in front of us. After ten minutes she said, “You know, I think you will have many blessings.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, “it is not common for a black person to be sitting in a white person’s car getting a lift. If people could see me they would say ‘Eish! What is that woman doing with those white people?’ So,” she finished with a confident nod, “because you have stopped for me, I think you will have many blessings.” When we reached the center of her village (a crossroads) she climbed out of N’doto and thanked us saying, “Sharp, very sharp!” which is a Batswana expression meaning ‘very good.’ Then she crossed the road and joined a group of woman waiting for lifts in the opposite direction. As we drove away I looked back to see her smiling broadly and telling the story of how she got a lift from two white people in an old Landy.

My blessings came all too soon. Twenty kilometers down the road a group of two women, three children, and a man, stood along the road. There was no village in sight and the area was heavily populated with elephants and other wild animals. When the man saw that we were foreigners, his arm fell by his side, as he did not expect us to stop.
“Do you think we have room for all of them?” Scott asked taking his foot off the gas.
“Sure!” and we stopped and reversed. It turned out that only one woman and her two children, aged 1 and 3 needed a lift. “Oh, then we can all sit in front,” I said. “I’ll hold the little girl on my lap.” Again, I straddled the gear stick. The baby boy was soon sound asleep in his mother’s arms, a Mona Lisa smile played on his lips and around his eyes while he slept. What is he dreaming about, I thought. Elephants? Monkeys?  Food? As we drove I tried to engage the little girl on my lap. Her mother told me that her name was Fuchsia. She smelled sweet, like a flower, so that made sense. “Aren’t you beautiful!” I said looking down at her little face. Each time I said something she nodded exactly twice, always looking me directly in the eyes taking my strange words seriously. But she never made a sound. Ah, what an angel, I thought. After a while her lids grew heavy and she stopped staring into my eyes and fell fast asleep. It felt so cozy to cradle a youngster in my arms. Scott looked at me and smiled knowing that I was happy as a clam. Fuchsia, bundled up in too many clothes as African children always are no matter how hot the day, was becoming warm in my arms. Too warm. She was in the deepest sleep I have ever seen. Why is it that a sleeping body is so much heavier than a waking one? My arm was going numb. Now she was as heavy as an eight year old. I shifted position and let her head drop onto Scott’s arm, hoping she would wake up. No luck. It was as if she was in a coma. I was beginning to sweat. Then, without warning, my lap became super heated. And damp. Then soaking wet. It was coming from Fuchsia or more precisely, Fuchsia’s bottom. “Uh oh,” I whispered to Scott. “No Pampers north of the Limpopo.”

When we reached the town where the woman lived with her husband and two children, I handed Fuchsia to her mother and indicated that Fuchsia had had an accident by pointing to my sopping wet jeans. The mother chuckled, as embarrassed moms whose babies pee on people who give them a lift do and she let me change into dry clothes in her home.

The good news is, while there might not be Pampers disposable diapers north of The Limpopo, there is Feta. There’s also a “Wet Wipes” type product, which I used with vigor on the middle seat of N’doto. But we have become bad people. Every time there is an off odor in the car we blame it on a little girl named Fuchsia.

Teresa O'Kane
Kasane, Botswana

Want to know more about our bush taxi experiences over ten months Casablanca to Cape Town?
Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Kissed a Hippo

At least once a day for the past three weeks Scott has been flying patterns in the airspace over Hoedspruit South Africa. Scott’s flying lessons are the reason we are in Hoedspruit for a month, the estimated time it will take for Scott to gain the hours needed for a microlight pilot license. I know now where the term “He has his head in the clouds” comes from because Scott completely and utterly loves flying. I’ve never seen him so happy.
“Ask Bruce if you will solo today,” I said. “I don’t want to miss your first lone take off and landing in a micro light!”

At 6am Scott sent a text to his flight instructor Bruce, “Do you think I will solo today? Tris wants to be there.” Bruce texted back, “You’ll only solo when I feel it’s right for you to do so.” So off Scott went to fly his circuits as usual with Bruce in the seat next to him. Two hours later he was back. Just by the look on his face I could tell. “You soloed didn’t you.” 

“Yes. Half-way through the lesson, Bruce turned to me and said, “You’re ready.” Scott had a pained look on his face. “I’m sorry you weren’t there. It was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to think. Bruce got out of the plane while it was on the runway and I flew one circuit and landed. I was only in the air for 5 minutes. It's not a big deal.”

I felt so many emotions all at once. I was so proud of him. I was happy and sad at the same time. How could I have missed such an important event.... More important for me than for Scott it seemed. Scott had started and stopped flying lessons since he was 14 years old. Many of his friends are or have been pilots, some have flown honorably for the military. As far as Scott was concerned this was just an opportunity to obtain a license once and for all, just for fun. But for me, it was a big deal. How often does one get to see their spouse flying a little plane, solo, over Africa? Only once!


I hugged and kissed him. “Congratulations Scott. I’m very proud of you.  I so wanted to be there… Did they give you champagne (as is customary at Hoedspruit Civil Airfield upon completion of a first solo flight) when you landed?…”. Then, “I can’t believe you went solo with out me!” which sounds funny now that I think about it. But those who know us know we do practically everything together. If there were any couple who would solo together, if would be us. We rarely celebrate individual victories or accomplishments without the other present for the champagne toast. Now, after 35 years, we had become like so many other couples who “do their own thing”. 

It seemed I should do something solo too. But it had to be something equally adventurous and risky and fun and death defying. I decided to confront my biggest fear in the biggest way possible. I drove 18 kilometers out of town and kissed a hippo.

The path to Jessica The World Famous Hippo is not easy. The heavily corrugated, potholed, intestine-jostling gravel road made me regret the entire bag of Doritos I ate when I stopped at The Giant Baobab on the way.
When I finally arrived at the farm where Jessica lives, Rein met me at the gate with, “You drove out here by yourself?”
“Yes.” I paused trying not to think about what would happen to all those Doritos if Jessica gave me a sudden fright. “My husband will be so sorry he missed this.” Then I asked, “Do you have champagne?”
Rein gave me a funny look. “Uh, Jessica drinks tea,” he answered.
“Okay whatever. My husband will still be sorry he missed this!”

Rein led me down to a fence made of logs and asked me to climb over it. Only it was a little taller than crotch height so my attempt at a slow motion hurdle was not very successful. Walking like Tex Ritter, I followed Rein to a wooden bench. “Sorry about that," he said. "I don’t know why the owners won’t install a gate for guests.” Then, “I’ll be right back. I think I hear another visitor.” Soon, short newlyweds from New York were seated next to me on the bench. I wondered how they got over the fence. Their stocky built guide stood a distance away enjoying a Coke. Maybe he lifted them over. We chatted about the animals they have seen so far on their trip, how long they are in Africa etc.

“Did you drive here by yourself?” they asked. “Weren’t you scared? What if something happened to your car?”

People often express surprise when they see me out and about by myself. Just the other day I decided to walk the 4 kilometers from Lisl’s house where we are staying in Raptors View to the main gate. Every time a vehicle came into view the driver slowed down and asked if I wanted a lift. I spent more time turning down rides than walking. I began to worry that I would miss my appointment for a desperately needed full body scrub (feet included which is a good value for me) at the Hoedspruit Day Spa so I ultimately accepted a ride from a contractor. 

“Are you walking alone?” he asked in his lilting born-in-Zimbabwe accent. “You aren’t afraid? Don’t you know that there are reptiles? And leopards?” and we talked about the recent leopard sightings all the way to the gate. There wasn’t enough time to discuss the snakes. Funny enough, I saw one yesterday while walking on the Aardvark Trail.                                                                     

I turned to the couple from New York “Sure I drove here alone! My husband and I used to do everything together but these days, not so much." I paused and watched as they comfortably swung their legs to and fro above the concrete patio floor. "How did you get over the fence?”

We watched a short video about Jessica. Jessica was only a few days old when she washed up on the bank of the Blyde River during the epic flood of 2000. If retired game ranger Tonie Roubert had not spotted Jessica trapped in some debris, she would have died. She spent the first five years of her life living in Tonie and Shirley’s home before being re-introduced to the river. For the last 13 years, the Rouberts swim with her, cuddle her, give her massages, and hand feed her sweet potatoes, corn, and warm rooibos tea from a bottle. Every night Jessica beds down on the veranda outside the house. She is never caged and she is free to roam the river with wilder hippos anytime she desires. Jessica sometimes joins a raft of hippos along the river for a day or two but she always comes back to the Joubert’s. She has a strong bond with their 5 dogs; one even sleeps on top of her at night and she has been featured in over 80 documentaries and movies.

Rein led us down a ramp to where Jessica was waiting in the water alongside a wobbly floating dock. He handed me a bucket half-filled with cut up sweet potatoes. “You can each take turns feeding Jessica. Place a slice of potato in her mouth and when she stops chewing and closes her mouth you can pet her nose.”

The first thing I noticed about Jessica is that she is the size of a VW bus. Her long, razor sharp tusks make my Nacho Cheese Dorito laden tummy do somersaults. The inside of Jessica's mouth is very pink and muscular looking - six pack gums so to speak. Also, she has bad breath.

I knelt down and popped a piece of potato in her cavernous mouth. She chewed twice before opening her mouth again for more. Each time I fed her I petted her nose. I couldn’t believe I was actually touching a hippo. Ever since we were charged by a hippo while canoeing on the Zambezi River in 2005, I have been terrified of hippos. I had no desire to get anywhere near them ever again. I think Jessica may have cured me.
After I fed her the potatoes, I massaged her back with my bare feet. After that, I gave her a big bottle of tea. After the tea, I gave her a kiss on her nose.

When I returned home that afternoon Scott, head in the clouds, forgot to ask where I had been.

It didn’t matter. I kissed a hippo!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Place Where Norman Slept

Since arriving in Africa I’ve recounted a few stories of exciting, surprising, and even risky encounters with wild animals. I never thought I would use the word “enchanting” to describe a bush experience but that’s just what my encounter with Norman was, the most enchanting encounter ever.

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He used to spend his days with his elephant friend George until George died after an unfortunate tussle with an electric fence in 2006. Now Norman wanders apart from the other elephants, meeting up with the breeding herd only at a distance or in mating season. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age and he is the elephant who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his 8 tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during on a 3-day camp out on Amakhala when we came upon the remains of a male elephant on the side of a gently sloping hill. We could smell the scene long before we saw it.  Sun bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and scavenging birds were strewn widely around the area but the putrefying hide of the elephant still lay draped over part of the skeleton. I am not much of a “woo woo” person, but the area felt creepy. We turned to our mentor Schalk and asked how the animal died.

“This elephant was beginning to be a real problem. He would aggressively approach people in vehicles, pester other elephants, and generally disrupt tranquility amongst the herd. We had just had a ranger meeting to discuss what we were to do with this elephant when Norman decided to take matters into his own hands.” He went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for hours and that the shrieking of the other elephants in the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard several kilometers away. After it was all over, the herd was once again relaxed and content.

My initial reaction to the story was that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from an animal as violent as Norman. Though Schalk always referred to him as a “wonderful old elephant”, each time I encountered Norman after that I felt on edge - until the day we had a chance to watch Norman taking a nap. 

We had seen Norman earlier that day when he passed by two male elephants as if they were not even there. He carried on up the road in the opposite direction and disappeared over the crest of a hill. While Lewis continued leading our group to an encounter on foot with the two young elephants, I noticed that Scott kept his eye on Norman’s direction of movement. When it was Scott’s turn to lead, he was presented with a choice; we could follow the two young males down the road where they would eventually meet up with the breeding herd, or we could try to locate Norman. Scott looked at Schalk with a smile and said, “Let’s walk Norman!” I was more than a little apprehensive about his choice.

By this time Norman was far away so we climbed into the Land Rover. I was on the tracker seat. I had my eyes on Norman in the distance but I suddenly lost him in a thicket. Then I even lost the thicket! We drove around the area for 30-45 minutes looking for Norman’s tracks or Norman’s poo or Norman. Tiring of driving around in circles, we finally just got out of the vehicle and walked. Schalk, with his years of experience in the bush, especially with this elephant who was like an old friend, was able to recognize Norman’s footprint. We began following the spoor and tracked Norman deeper into the thicket. After some minutes, Schalk asked Lewis to bring the Landy up closer to our location and then told Scott and I to head in the direction of the vehicle, “I want to go a little further on my own,” he said.

Scott and I had just met Lewis at the vehicle when we heard a strange sound from the bushes. Then Schalk came running out at full speed. We quickly got the doors of the Landy open and were half in half out when Schalk, with a big smile on his face whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk caught his breath then said, “He’s sleeping! I almost bumped into him in the middle of the thicket. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. Then he snored.”
“That was the sound we heard!” I said quietly.

We moved the Landy a short distance away from Norman’s bedroom and parked it behind a large bush. We waited for Norman to wake up. We peered through binoculars into the thicket.

Each time Norman took a breath and exhaled, the leaves on the tree next to him would flutter. We crept closer until we could clearly see him and we could easily hear him farting and snoring. We waited.
We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. We waited some more. It had been well over two hours since Scott had suggested we walk with Norman. Finally we heard limbs snapping. Norman slowly rose from his slumber and headed for the waterhole. Using clumps of bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he made his way to drink. Then we watched him retrace his steps and pass the place where he napped before finally disappearing over a hill and out of view.

“That was great!” we all said and we began walking back to where the vehicle was parked – always the hardest part of a bush walk for me because I become so engrossed in what I am looking at that I have not paid any attention to landmarks. Fortunately the guys were guys and knew the way. “Can we see where Norman slept?” I asked as we neared the thicket. What I saw there completely changed my opinion of Norman once and for all.

The place where Norman slept was a cozy den with a high ceiling made of twigs intertwined with vines bearing petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was his bed. There, in the center of the thicket, was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, part of the hipbone of another old elephant friend named Tom. On the way to his nap Norman had stopped to visit Tom’s nearby grave and decided to take a part of Tom with him as he napped. We all stared at Tom’s bone and thought about all we know and what we can’t ever really know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

I’ve encountered more animals on foot than seems fair for such a novice but no matter how many more chances I have to observe animals in the bush, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to see the place where Norman slept with his old friend Tom.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

“Whoopsie!” And Other South African Sayings

The hospitality of South Africans is beyond measure. They are warm, generous, and polite. They meet you at the door and walk you out too. Everything they do for you is "their pleasure."  How generous are they? While sipping coffee in Madham’s Cafe a stranger walked up and asked, “Is that your Landy? I think we passed you on the way into town.” When we told him we were in Hoedspruit for a month while Scott takes flying lessons Donovan said, “I have a small vacant house on my property. It’s a bit out of town but you are welcome to stay there.” Meanwhile at least three other people in town were looking for accommodation for us too. In the end, we rented a wing of a house in town, yet in the bush, in a place called Raptor’s View. I am writing you from the deck of Lisl’s house overlooking Africa, all the way to the Drakensberg Mountains.

Everyone in Hoedspruit seems to have two or three jobs. I think Lisl has six. She’s an environmental speaker and retired Air Force helicopter pilot who teaches Pilates, Tai Chi, and Zumba, writes, and coaches local women on empowerment and entrepreneurship. She is also the Goodness Guru at Madham’s. Best of all, she picked a pretty incredible spot to live. When Scott rides to the hanger for lessons (on the bicycle his instructor Bruce McDonald generously lent him) he often passes giraffe on the way.

When Scott isn't flying we practice our tracking skills and usually run into an interesting species or two. 

I love the way South Africans speak. I love their accents and intonations but I especially love their sayings. People the world over have words or phrases unique to their experience but I find the expressions in South Africa to be the most charming. The most charming of all, which I heard for the second time in one week, is “Lord, love a duck!” meaning, “You don’t say!” or “How in the world did you find that?” Or in the situation used the other day, “I can’t believe you still have the email I sent you three years ago!”

“Shame” It is usually delivered almost in a whisper. Shame can be used in place of “What a tragedy”, or “Oops” or “That really bites!” or “That is very kind of you.” Examples include, “I lost my job” – “Shame.” “I spilled my milk” – “Shame”, or “Here, why don’t you borrow my binoculars?” – “Shame.” We met a woman who never said just “Shame.” It was always, “Shame, Daddy” which I can’t explain at all.

“Whoopsie!” Like “Oops” or “Oopsie daisy!” as in, “Whoopsie, I spilled some Tequila."

“Oaks” It means, as far as we can tell, “folks” as in “Those Oaks are really nice people.” I forgot to ask what they say when they want to say oak as in oak tree, oak barrel...

“YE-EEES!” It’s “yes” but said with a lot more conviction, enthusiasm, and excitement. When South Africans say, “YE-EEES!” they sound like they’re… well, climaxing. Got me to wondering… never mind. Anyway, this is my favorite expression.

“Chilled” It means relaxed but it’s often used with animals as in, “That bull elephant in musth (which means he has super high levels of testosterone coursing through his veins) is really chilled!” We think this a very misused expression. Lions and elephants are nothing like teenagers collapsed on a couch listening to music or watching TV. If you annoy a chilled teenager they are unlikely to chomp or stomp you to death as a lion or ellie would. Whenever one of our guides says, “That leopard is chilled!” I feel like saying, “Are you serious? Go over and change his channel and see what happens.”
Here's one we encountered in Kruger who knocked this tree over in order to get at the tidbits at the top - or just because he could. 

“Shhyo!”  Delivered with a loud exhale and as far as I can tell it means “Wow!” or “OMG!” or “YE-EEES!” or “I’m speechless!” or “You said it Buster!”

“Have you seen the Southern Cross?”  Just about everyone we meet asks us this question. When we say, “Yes” they accuse us of fibbing. “Are you sure you’ve seen the Southern Cross? Do you know how to find south by using the Southern Cross?” When we say “YE-EES!” (because we were required to on our course) they still tell us anyway, “See those 4 stars? And the pointers below?...” Anyway, the Southern Cross is a pretty cool mass of stars in the Southern Hemisphere.

“You must” or “You mustn’t” This is used in place of “I suggest” or “You might consider” when giving advice. I get a little tired of people telling me what I must or mustn’t do. “I’m the boss of me!” as I used to tell my mother.  I know “must” is just an expression but it started to bug me. “You must speak louder” or “You must tint the windows on your Landy so that people can’t see what is inside.” (That one is actually pretty good advice and we probably should, must do that.) The only time I appreciated being told what I mustn’t do was when a woman in a small town tourist information office said while pointing to a squiggle on our map, “You mustn’t take that road. There are potholes. Also, service workers are on strike in that town and they will throw rocks at your vehicle.”
“Okay!” I said, “I mustn’t!” But after a pause she said, “I just remembered that today is Sunday and on Sundays they won’t throw rocks. They will throw rocks again tomorrow, on Monday. You must take this road.”

All in South Africa seem to have a Jack Russell as a pet. Whenever we meet families traveling in Kruger Park where pets are not allowed we ask, “Who is taking care of your Jack Russell?” and no one ever says, “Shhyo! We don’t have a Jack Russell!” If they did we would respond, “Shame” because they really are the most amazing pets - especially the Jack Russell named Fraser who we met at Jembjo’s Lodge in Knysna. Best dog ever.

South Africans love to braai – barbeque – though it is a process that takes hours and hours because they start with logs and keep adding logs until they burn down to coals so you are usually pretty hungry by the time the meal is ready to eat. While we wait for the logs to produce coals we drink. Man! Can South Africans drink! (This characteristic fits in nicely with my Irish heritage.) They mostly drink beer and wine, but also Rum and Coke, or Brandy and Coke, or Tequila and Tequila. They eat meat and lots of it. No one knows how to braai like a South African male. It makes my mouth water just to think of it.

“Ach!” means, “I miss-spoke. I meant to say I would like a Rum, not a Tequila.”

"Now", Just now" and "Now now" all mean something different as to time when something will happen but I always get them mixed up. I think "just now" means "sometime in the future," or "don't hold your breath."

We learned in our firearm handling classes that "immediately" is defined as "by the end of the next business day."

No one knows how to enjoy the weekend better than South Africans. At least here in Hoedspruit they do. Shops close earlier on Fridays and even earlier on Saturdays. Most of the town is closed on Sundays. People savor and enjoy their time off to spend time with family or attend sporting events. We could learn something  here.

We noticed that when South Africans camp in Kruger, they build mesh fences or barriers all around their site. They bring lots of stuff and 100 feet of extension cord because they like to have lots of lighting strung up around their sites. But they are very quiet and respectful of others and they go to bed when the meat is finished so this is another reason to like them.

I won’t talk about the politics because when it’s discussed, South Africans always say, “Ach! We could talk about this for days and no one would agree!” But everyone we have spoken with says that Nelson Mandela, 94 and in hospital, was a great leader and is wonderful man.

We hear side striped jackal at night and choruses of birds during the day. Five warthogs just walked by. I love it. Two properties away, Derek Solomon, renowned safari leader, birder, and wildlife sound recorder extraordinaire, generously gave three hours of his time to tutor us in the use of sound equipment that we use to record vocalizations of animals we meet in Kruger.

We don’t deserve any of this generosity! But we are grateful. I only hope we have a chance to pay it back. Or forward.
Scott and Tris
Hoedspruit South Africa