The Skies of Africa — Part 3, Savute

The overland trip from Khwai to Savute is a day full of adventure. The road is long and dusty, often trapping the tires of self-drive visitors whose rented SUVs don’t have the suspension to handle the very deep sand.

Rescuing a self-driven couple stuck in the deep sand

In April, as the rainy season that brings storms and high waters to the Okavango Delta trickles to an end, the landscape progresses from fresh and green in Khwai, through thick mopane forests with their odd butterfly-shaped pairs of leaves, and then into the dry beige grasslands that Africa usually brings to mind.

Mopane shrubs studded with tent caterpillars

The journey is essentially a day-long game drive. Elephant paths criss-cross the road, and you’ll often find yourself waiting patiently as one of the big grey creatures leaves the brush on one side, lumbers across unconcerned with the trivial presence of motorized vehicles, and disappears surprisingly quickly into the scrub on the other side.

A stop for morning tea might be overseen by a curious troop of Chacma baboons, romping up and down the trees around the clearing where the safari staff have set up the cups, thermoses and plates of cookies. We watched a trio of youngsters play ‘king of the termite mound’ until a big adult male chased them off and claimed the throne for his own.

In the heat of mid-day, the guide will choose a shady spot to stop for lunch, where there’s still enough visibility to make sure no predators are resting under the shrubs.

Lunch is a picnic in the bush, where you can watch a large monitor lizard slink through the grass or a herd of wildebeest graze in the shade of acacias while you enjoy dishes like roasted chicken, potato salad, buns, three-bean salad, cold cuts, creamy rice salad and other amazing food, cooked by the camp chefs that morning and packed in metal containers for the trip.

Finally, in the late afternoon, you arrive at the Savute Channel, one of the strangest places in Botswana. The channel is a deep valley that links two sets of marshes, Savute and Linyanti. The first time we were there, we drove along the bottom, swerving between the tree-lined sides as we spotted banded mongooses and searched for that elusive leopard. The channel had been dry for about 20 years.

Three years later, the channel had experienced one of its mysterious flows and was full of water. Decades of research have failed to reveal the reason for this strange phenomenon, but geologists attribute it to some kind of tectonics that sometimes block the flow of water, and other times let it through.

Camp is set up on the top edges of the channel where it’s always dry, and there are always flat plains to enjoy all the wildlife and the spectacular sunsets.

That first safari, we arrived at the channel in the late afternoon. Our guide decided to explore the bottom of the channel while we still had some daylight. He said that, with all the rocky outcrops, it was a place where leopards liked to hang out so they could lurk on the rocks and look for prey. We drove from one end to the other and up the other side – nothing. It was getting late, so our guide decided to cross back and head for camp, and was nearly at the bottom when a fellow guide radioed the exciting news: a leopard sighting! It’s one of the advantages of a guided safari – all the guides from the different safari companies will share the location of sightings with each other.

The sometimes-dry bottom of the Savute Channel

Our guide screeched to a dusty stop, made a quick three-point turn and tore back up the hill. We were all hushed, holding our breaths so we wouldn’t make any noise to spook the creature, and scrutinizing every shrub and shadow right along with our guide. I was at the back on the right side of the vehicle, camera ready and repeating “Don’t scream, don’t scream” silently over and over in my head. While I’m not normally a screamer, it’s hard to stop yourself from at least a tiny shriek of excitement when you see something special.

We rounded a curve in the road and suddenly I spotted the leopard, lounging in the sparse grasses of a little clearing just off to the side! I whispered as softly/loudly as I could to the people ahead of me, “It’s over there! It’s right there!!”, and pointed frantically. It felt like forever as word made its way up to our guide and he carefully pulled over into the dust, slowly approaching the animal.

It was a small female, lying quietly in the dusk. She was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, even more stunning in person from just a few feet away. She didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all, lying there graciously for about 20 minutes while we quietly snapped photos. Eventually she got up and calmly licked herself a bit – as if displaying all her elegance just for us – and then faded away into the brush.

My hubby looked over at me at one point incredulously. “Are you crying?!”

We had done it. We had found a leopard, all lethal beauty and grace, lying right out in the open for us. By that point I’d been fully convinced that we’d never see one. And I’d been the one to spot her first. I was incredibly moved by the experience. That evening in camp we all cracked open a special bottle of wine at dinner to celebrate.

The amazing sightings continued.

One morning an entire flock of ostrich paraded across the savannah as we had morning tea.

In another section we watched two male impalas lock horns in a deathly battle. One of the males flipped the other so hard it crashed into the side of our vehicle. We were sure it was dead, until it suddenly leapt up and sprinted away, the other male hot on its hooves.

Around a bend we surprised a big male lion courting a female right at the side of the road. He let out a massive aggravated roar, making every single one of us jump in our seats. Our guide told us that he was one of three brothers, any of whom would happily dethrone him. Through three days of prolonged, repeated and exhausting mating needed to stimulate the female into conception, the male had to be constantly on alert lest one of his brothers attacked, so he was a bit testy.

A muddy pit held the heartbreaking remains of an old elephant who’d got caught in the muck and hadn’t had the strength to get out. We sat there in respectful silence for a few minutes. No one took any photos, and we left it in peace as we continued on our game drive.

A flooded road in the water-filled Savute Channel

Three years later, the abundant waters of the full channel had changed the migration – now large herds of animals remained in Savute instead of moving on to Linyanti, and we were overwhelmed at the sight of so many zebra forming a crazy piece of op art with their dizzying clusters of stripes. Scientists believe that’s the  purpose of the stripes, to confuse predators so that they can’t tell where one zebra stops and the next starts. In such groupings, it’s easier for the vulnerable babies to disappear between dozens of legs.

Beyond the zebras the landscape was full of herds of giraffe loping along the ground and elephants taking dust baths.

Guinea fowl supplied comic relief, with their fat speckled bodies topped by long necks and small red and blue heads. When they’re disturbed, they dash in absurd clusters through the grasses. The guides call them ‘running teapots’.

There was an impala run behind our camp, and every day at tea time in the afternoon the antelopes seemed to get their own version of cat-crazies, bounding back and forth along the base of the hill until they’d worked off their energy.

On one afternoon game drive we drove to an area high up in the Savute foothills where hundreds of years ago San bushmen painted rock art of the animals they hunted, best seen in the golden light of late day, after some steep scrambling up the boulders!

As the sun began to sink, a pair of lionesses on the hunt prowled through the grasses right in front of us.

And then there were the sunsets.

We all loved Savute and were as sorry to leave it behind as we were excited to move on to the Serondela region and the Chobe Reserve with its world-famous elephant herds. The reserve runs along the wide Chobe river, and would give us the opportunity to take to the deeper water amid crocodiles and big pods of hippos. Join me next week for our surprisingly dangerous venture into Serondela!

The Skies of Africa – Part 2, Khwai

Khwai, ahh Kwhai! It remains my favourite part of Botswana (although in all fairness I haven’t visited the entire range of game reserves in the country). There’s just something about this area that I completely fell in love with.

Khwai is part of the Moremi reserve, a drier section of the Okavango Delta. It’s considered one the most magical parts of Botswana, and that’s definitely the effect it had on me. After another short flight across more of the Delta, you come in for a landing at another short sandy strip, and proceed to the entrance to Khwai village, where there’s a scattering of traditional round mud huts with conical thatched roofs, and a small rectangular ‘tuck shop’ where you can restock on AA or AAA camera batteries and possibly a storage disk or two. The mud huts are built with material from disused termite mounds, so they’re as waterproof and weather-resistant as the mounds themselves.

The Khwai villagers used to live in the game reserve itself, but were moved outside of it with the offering of a concession to run the tuck shop, sell their beautiful handwoven basketry, and work as safari staff. At the edge of the village a picturesque, rough log bridge straight out of an adventure movie crosses the Khwai river to take you into the reserve itself.

Our guides let us out at the start of the bridge for photo ops and so we could have the fun of walking across ourselves while they drove the safari vehicles with all of our luggage across, picking us up on the other side. Pretty grey vervet monkeys with charcoal faces tend to hang about the bridge and watch the human antics.

Our second bush camp was set up in a clearing amid acacias and sausage trees. In the distance, from the direction of the river we could hear hippos grunting, and since we were there during rutting season, at night the male impalas snorted at each other for hours not very far from our tents – one night I was tempted to hurl a hiking boot at them.

The landscape of Moremi, and Khwai in particular, is flat and colourful, with thickets of green acacias and mopane interspersed with white termite mounds, gold and russet grasses, blue pools of water and large muddy grey wallows where you can size up your footprint next to an elephant’s.

We often stopped for morning tea in a clearing near the river, watching rust-coloured lechwe antelope graze while Nile crocodiles sunned along the river bank and wading birds strolled through the water.

Lazy lunches back at camp were followed by naps, journal-writing or a spot of laundering with an afternoon cocktail.

In the late afternoon our guide would take us back out to catch elephants moving through the golden grasses and lions huffing as their pride settled down with the dwindling rays of the sun.

With such a varied terrain, Khwai is truly a birder’s paradise. On our first trip to Botswana we had a birder from Australia in our group, and we soon became as fascinated as he was as our guide pointed out all the exotic-looking birds for the tally. Cranes, African ground hornbills, open-billed storks, spoonbills, pied kingfishers, Egyptian geese, tawny eagles, fish eagles, kori bustards, lilac-breasted rollers… a buffet of birds for spotting.

Open-billed stork
Kori bustard
Lilac-breasted rollers

Our safari company had provided small wildlife journals with descriptions of the animals as well as checklists to mark off everything we spotted. We quickly learned that this was an essential activity – we’d regularly see at least a dozen or more new creatures in a single day, and the only way to remember which was which was to jot notes in the order that you took photos of them!

Nights were cooler there, with less moisture to hold in the heat. I can still remember the feeling of lying snug and warm under my duvet while cool fresh air bathed my face. It was a wonderful way to sleep.

One night I woke up briefly to snuffling and grunting beneath the tent window. I couldn’t see what the animal was, but the next morning, upon describing the sounds to our guide, he told me it would have been a honey badger, a fierce animal that I was happy not to have met face-to-face. The guides are experts at identifying animals by their different sounds and tracks, and they’ll spot a giraffe peeking out of the trees long before you do, a bird in a distant tree, a rock python slithering through the grass.

In the morning the camp staff would come round to each tent to gently wake us up. In the morning chill we dressed quickly with a minimum of primping in the low pre-dawn light, although I did bring a portable lighted plastic mirror that has become an indispensable travel companion ever since.

Bush camping is an intimate experience. The tents are clustered enough that you get to know the routines of your fellow travellers pretty well, especially if you’re on a safari with shared toilet and shower facilities. There’s not much to be done in the way of grooming when you have no electricity, and hair issues are easily hidden under a hat, thank goodness.

Mornings are usually a quick washup and tooth-brushing with warm water in either a canvas bucket or a tin basin while the raucous francolin birds chatter all around the camp. You have time for a swipe of unscented deodorant, and exchanging sleep wear for layers that can be removed as the day gets warmer. Our usual outfit would be convertible hiking pants that would keep our legs warm in the morning chill but with zip-off bottom halves that could be taken off to create long shorts; a t-shirt underneath a ventilated hiking shirt, maybe topped with a sweater and/or light jacket; socks and hiking shoes; and scruffy hair tucked under a hat.

As the temperature rose, typically into the 80s or 90s F by lunch time, we would peel off layers and stuff them in the seat pouches.

A light meal of coffee or tea, cereal and toast; a quick potty break; you make sure you have your daypack with camera, water, journal and pen; and you pile into the safari vehicle for the morning game drive.

On every safari we’ve done, the participants take turns in different seats of the open part of the vehicle so that everyone gets a chance at different viewpoints. The experience is different depending on where you sit. Up front in the cab next to the guide, you get to see everything first, and it’s fun to chat. In the rear section, on a good safari every participant has a ‘window’ seat with an unimpeded view.

When open-sided vehicles are used, as they are throughout Botswana, the seating is typically staggered in height, lowest in front to highest in back. The two seats farthest back can provide the best viewing from the elevated height, but it’s also the bumpiest place to sit, and while the guides keep an eagle eye out for logs and ruts, an unexpected deep pothole can send you flying.

When animals are spotted, the guide will position the vehicle in the best possible viewing location with a good angle for photos. If it’s possible without spooking the animals, he may even reposition after a while so that guests on both sides have good photo ops, Good safaris will also stay with an exceptional sighting for as long as the guests want, instead of rushing off somewhere else on a tight schedule.

We spent a long time enjoying the spectacle of our first big male lion, belly full and sated from a big meal, as he lay languidly in the shade digesting, He was quite unconcerned with our presence. We were able to get close enough to smell him, and I can tell you that male lions stink. It’s a wonder they can find a female to mate with!

Afternoon game drives operate a bit differently, since many public game reserves don’t allow night viewing to avoid disturbing the animals. As the day turns to dusk, the predators come out to hunt, while the other animals start to settle down for the night. Baboons that have been foraging in the grasses all day will move up into the tree branches, impalas sprint across the fields to their nightly abode, giraffes scent the evening air and lumber slowly away through the trees. In most reserves the guide is required to return you to camp by nightfall.

In private concessions, you may get to do one or two night drives. A spotter will sit up on a special seat on the front edge of the vehicle’s hood, carrying a spotlight. The guide will slowly drive along through the deepening darkness, looking for movement in the brush and eyes reflected in the light. You might spot a serval cat prowling through the grasses or a spotted hyena loping down the road. If you’re near water and are very lucky, there might be a ghostly Pel’s fishing owl in a tree. It’s an interesting peek at life in the wild on the flip side of the day.

A Pel’s owl

Either during the lunch break, or before dinner, your canvas bucket will be filled up with hot water so you can have a bush shower.

It’s my assertion that you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a hot bucket shower in the African bush. A large canvas bucket, hanging from a tree branch or a wooden stand, holds enough water for two people, if you’re careful. You strip and step onto a slatted wooden platform, then open the spigot at the bottom of the bucket to allow enough water through to get you wet. The spigot gets closed while you lather up from head to foot; the camp provides the unscented, biodegradable shampoo and shower soap.

Once that you’re fully soaped up, you reopen the spigot to quickly rinse off. The water drains into the dirt through the wooden slats beneath your feet as you take your fluffy towel off its metal perch to dry off and get dressed so the next person can have their turn.

On our first safari, where the shower tents were shared by all, there was a thick rope to string across the opening that showed the tent was occupied, and the shower itself was located in a separate section with its own flap. It was my misfortune one windy day in the Khwai camp to be in mid-shower when my hubby started frantically calling my name. A male elephant on a mating mission, blind with lust, was charging through the edge of our camp. But the wind was trying hard to flip open the tent flaps, and it was impossible for me to take a look without flashing everyone – not for lack of trying! Intensely frustrated, I had to be content with hearing about it afterward.

Black-backed jackals on the hunt

After two days our time in magical Khwai was done, and once more we gathered up our belongings while the safari staff packed up the entire camp. From there it was a full day overland, back through Khwai village and northward through hours of bush to get to our third camp in Savute, famed for its sunsets. There were sunsets in Khwai, of course, but apparently they paled in comparison to Savute’s, where the wide savannah topography allowed for magnificent views.

Savute was also a good place to see leopards. At the start of a safari your guide may ask you what animal you most want to see, and will try and find it for you. My instant answer was a leopard – dangerous, beautiful, and elusive. We’d now spent four days trying to spot one, and time was running out. I tried not to get my hopes too high for Savute, and I knew there were no guarantees that we’d see one at all, but Savute was my last best chance.

Next week, part 3: Savute!

A little frivolity

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like the coronavirus is Mother Nature’s twisted April Fool’s prank? Well, if so, She didn’t end it after 12pm, the customary cutoff time, so according to tradition we may call Her the Fool for that.

Media opinion was divided as to whether April Fool’s should have been celebrated this year. CNN even pontificated about pranks during the “global cloud of human suffering”. Seriously? How is that description going to help my state of mind? I’m well aware of how many people have been affected by the pandemic, but we need some relief from the grim barrage of information!

Apparently a British newspaper posted a joke image of Prince Harry schlepping around Hollywood in baggy sweats with a hoard of toilet paper in a shopping cart. Harmless fun, I think.

We need to be able to stay as calm as possible while time passes tucked away in our little corners of the earth. And that means controlling what we can control, like creating an atmosphere of fun as often as possible to counterbalance the news.

Go for a walk in your neighbourhood, and be mindfulin the moment. I went for a walk this afternoon. The sun was shining in a bright blue, cloudless sky with a slight cool breeze on my face. I was tempted to let my mind wander, but I steered it back to enjoying the signs of life and Spring around me.

I could hear wind chimes tinkling melodically in the breeze in someone’s back yard. I saw a red-tailed hawk drifting lazily overhead while a bright red cardinal sang melodies in a tree I was passing; spotted tiny, cheery white crocus blooming at the base of a front-yard tree; watched buds emerging into the mild air. A fellow was out walking his dog while he scrolled through messages on his cell phone; I’m certain he missed all these things. Take the time to notice and appreciate all the bits of life as you walk – these things keep us grounded in daily reality during the surrealness of life right now. They show us that life is going onward and that every day brings us closer to the eventual end of the pandemic.

The other day my hubby had a package delivered from Amazon. The parcel service driver had rung our doorbell and left the box on our front stoop, but I happened to open the door just as he was rounding the front of his van. He waved at me and smiled, and I smiled, waved back and called out, “Thank you!”.

Not an unusual exchange most of the time, but I see so many people looking grim when we venture out to replenish supplies, and it was nice to share a smile that day. I know everyone’s worried and uncertain about the future, but we can brighten each other’s days by taking the time to at least smile and exchange pleasantries, even if they are given from a distance.

Since we’re all stuck at home most of the time, couples and families are under each other’s feet a lot more, and it will be easy to get irritated. So this week’s theme is frivolity, in honour of April Fool’s Day and keeping a sense of humour. It’s a way we can help each other chill out in close quarters.

The origins of April Fool’s Day are murky, but it seems to date back at least as far as the Middle Ages. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, a Flemish writer wrote a poem describing a nobleman who sent his servant on silly errands on April 1, and in 1857 citizens of London, England were fooled into going to the Tower to see an ‘annual lion-washing ceremony’.

By Unknown author – http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Washing_The_Lions/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9873207

Personally I’m not a big fan of practical jokes, although I’ve seen some pretty funny ones. The prankee, though, isn’t always amused.

April Fool’s is all about make-believe, though, isn’t it, and there are all kinds of ways to indulge in a little pretend-fun without offending anyone.

One of my preferred activities is to play board games and jigsaw puzzles. I play a killer game of backgammon, which my hubby refuses to play with me because of my admittedly uncanny ability to roll doubles. As a great alternative, though, we indulge in working on murder mystery jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles date back to the 18th century, and were originally pictures painted onto a piece of wood. They were then cut into pieces using a marquetry saw. The first puzzle is believed to have been created by a engraver and cartographer, John Spilsbury, in London England. It featured a map of Europe and was meant to be educational. Spilsbury called it a “dissected map”, and the idea caught on.

In the 19th century fretsaws were used to cut up the pieces, not a jigsaw, but the misnomer stuck. Eventually the puzzles began to be printed on cardboard, and became enormously popular during the Great Depression as a cheap form of entertainment that could be played at for hours – the same reason they still make a great activity during a similarly challenging time right now.

If you’ve never done a murder mystery jigsaw, let me introduce you to a whole new level of the activity! For these puzzles, the joke is a little bit on you: you don’t get to know what the picture is supposed to look like. You’re given a booklet that tells the story leading up to the murder, with clues as to what you should be looking for to put together the puzzle and solve the mystery. It’s diabolical, and engrossing.

You need a large dedicated surface and patience to put these together – they’re not solved in one or even a few sittings. My hubby and I took three weeks to put the last one together, starting after New Year’s when we got home from a holiday trip, and then on weekends and after work into late January.

Our strategy is to assemble all the edge pieces, just like a regular jigsaw, and then sort the remaining pieces into trays based on colour and surface pattern. Very slowly, with many adjustments and fiddling, patterns begin to emerge and the final story takes shape. Sometimes you step away for a day with frustration and a sore back, only to have an idea pop into your head – damn, I think I know where that piece goes! – and you’re back at it again. There’s a compulsion to solve these complex puzzles, and the mystery they portray.

If you’re a Titanic buff, you’ll love this puzzle, available from Amazon

Think of all the ways you can have fun with some make-believe. People have had ‘Christmas in July’ parties and Caribbean parties in the winter for ages, after all. How about a Pirate party, or an Alice in Wonderland tea? You can while away quite a few hours planning them out, putting up decorations, making delicious food, getting dressed up. Let your hair down, take some photos, and have a blast. In fact, I’d love for you to share a photo with me once you’re done!

If you’re a year-round Halloween person, if autumn is your favourite season, or you’re just looking forward to the fall when hopefully life will have returned more-or-less to normal, make something pumpkin-flavoured. Turn out the lights and light some candles, put on one of the movies I listed in my October blog, or another favourite creepy movie, and enjoy a little catharsis with the pretend-chills.

And a bonus for you, a background image I’ve created that you can download for free to keep on your computer screen to help keep things in perspective. Next week: The Skies of Africa, Part 2: Khwai.

The Skies of Africa, Part 1: Nxabega

How is everyone doing? Interesting times, and it can take some determination to block out most of the media frenzy so that it doesn’t rub off on you. I love this article by Smarter Travel, Tips from Italians on Handling the Lockdown with Grace and Style — lots of things that made me smile.

I’m always up for a little escapism when I’m stressed, and a recent email from one of the safari companies we’ve travelled with gave me the idea for this extended blog post.

Going to the continent of Africa is a transcendent experience – a visitor will come back changed. It’s believed that Africa affects us so deeply because, going back hundreds of thousands of years, it’s where all of us – our species as human beings – originated. There’s certainly a feeling of great age there.

My hubby and I have been very fortunate to have been to Africa several times, so over several weeks I’m going to take you on a virtual journey to beautiful Botswana in southern Africa.

These are long reads, so get comfy.

First, prepare yourself some tea or coffee – preferably served in a metal cup, stainless steel or speckle ware, such as you might use on a camping adventure – and a plate of cookies (any kind will do, but feel free to have an exotic flavour if you like). If you need to eat gluten-free food, on one of the safaris the camp chef made us delightful gluten-free corn muffins. If you can’t have caffeine, get yourself some Rooibos tea, a hearty herbal tea that we enjoyed on our first safari.

Next, if you have an old-fashioned oil or kerosene lamp, light that up for atmosphere, and imagine yourself in the orange and lavender African dusk as we journey together.

Getting to Botswana is an adventure in itself. We flew from Canada to London, England, then 11 hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, then a smaller jet to Maun in Botswana, where our safari guides met us and loaded our baggage onto small bush planes with propellers. There’s not much room on the bush planes, so your luggage must be compact, soft-sided and lightweight. My hubby bought a duffle bag for the purpose, but I found a great backpack-style bag with lots of pockets and a small set of wheels. When I’m getting up at the crack of dawn deep in the African bush and trying to dress myself in near-darkness, I want to be able to locate the various parts of my outfit!

As we chugged along just 1,000 feet above the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s famous wetland and the location of our first bush camp, we could see small bits of island dotting the vast shallow floodplain. Our guides pointed out channels made through the swampy waters between some of the islands, made by elephants and hippos as they wade through and graze on the water plants.

The Delta is created by waters from the Okavango River, which, instead of emptying into the ocean, dumps itself into the northern part of the Kalahari Desert, creating one of the largest wetlands in the world. The deep blue waters are always there, although they swell and shrink from one rainy season to the next, so the Delta is the permanent home for all kinds of wildlife. If you’re a birder, it’s an absolute paradise!

The flight to our first bush camp lasted about half an hour, and then we were coming in for a landing on a tiny strip of sand in the middle of nowhere – the bush airstrip used by several camps and lodges. Our baggage was transferred into a couple of waiting open-sided safari trucks, into which we all piled in for the roughly 90-minute ride through the bush to our camp.

The first thing you notice in the Delta is the salty, pungent scent of wild sage in the warm air. The landscape is filled with sage bushes, tall and short palm trees, and high slender termite mounds studding the deep sandy  Kalahari base. The mounds are the genesis of the islands themselves, as termites start gluing together soil above the waters, and seeds germinate on the fertile exterior.

The few roads wind through the Delta, skirting trees, tall mounds and shrubbery – they’re meant to be minimally invasive – and we rode along with all of our senses engaged as the trucks bounced along the deep sandy surfaces, drawing our breaths in as we began to see wildlife! Your first sighting in Africa is typically a herd of impalas, the antelopes with the buff coats, pretty ears and striped rumps. These antelopes are so successful a species that, despite being the favourite prey of the big cats, they can be found on much of the continent. The first time we went, we were delighted to see them all, until after a few days and many sightings later, someone would say excitedly, “Look, over there, I see some…oh, it’s just more impalas.”

Safaris through the wettest part of the Delta often involve crossing from one island to the next. Sometimes there are log bridges, sometimes your safari truck will just wade directly through the waters.

The vehicles are specially designed with exhaust pipes that snorkel upward above the hood to keep them dry. It can feel a bit like the parting of the Red Sea – on one game drive I was sitting up front next to our guide and had to quickly raise my feet above the water that came rushing into my seating area (thankfully not as high as my seat itself).

After going on safari, driving back home isn’t nearly as much fun!

When we finally arrived at our bush camp in the Nxabega section of the Delta, the camp staff all came over to welcome us, show us to our assigned tents, and lead us gratefully to a delicious lunch. Here the camp is set up overlooking the permanent floodplain in the Delta, set more-or-less safely back from the water (one morning the meal table had to be hastily moved).

The tents are a wonderful combination of comfort and exposure to nature. On our first trip to Botswana we were in 9′ x 9′ dome tents with just our 2 comfortable cots, but the same safari two years later featured three-part tents with a large sleeping section, a middle section open to the sky so that a canvas bucket could be hung overhead for our showers along with a table with a metal sink and water pitcher, and an enclosed toilet section with a flushable toilet connected to a canvas cistern outside at the rear.

After lunch and a bathroom break, we had a chance to explore the camp and settle in for the next two days.

We had embarked on what’s called a mobile camping safari, spending two nights in each of four camps in different habitats in Botswana.

Safaris typically follow a format created by the earliest commercial safaris:

  • Rising at dawn for a full or continental breakfast and then heading out on a morning game drive in the cool of the day when the animals wake up and are active
  • Mid-morning break for tea/coffee and biscuits in the bush
  • Return to the camp around lunchtime. The day has usually gotten hot by this point, so the animals are often hiding in the shade, so it’s an opportune time to enjoy lunch and relax in the camp, perhaps writing in your journal or playing cards with a gin and tonic.
  • Afternoon tea, a holdover from the early British days of safari, followed by
  • A late afternoon game drive when the temperature is dropping again and predators are often out on the hunt
  • Return to camp at dusk for showers and dinner around the campfire.

The camp chefs are expert at creating some amazing meals over a wood fire – even cakes are possible. Wine and beer are generally included on safari, while hard liquors can be arranged. Some passengers will bring their own supply; Johannesburg airport won’t sell liquor to non-nationals, but Maun has a “bottle store” (aka liquor store) and you can arrange with your guide to make a quick excursion when you land.

After dinner we sat around the table with our guides, chatting, listening to the tinkling sounds of tree frogs and fruit bats all around us, watching the sky turn indigo and purple, then black, and all the stars coming out to twinkle overhead.

The campfire stayed lit all night, and lanterns were hanging outside our tent flap, to keep the animals away (mostly). After a busy day in the fresh African air, bedtimes are generally early and well-earned.

Our first night as we lay in the tent, just some canvas and mesh separating us from the African wild, listening to all the night noises, we experienced such a thrill of excitement at being so immersed in that legendary continent.

With a permanent source of water, the Okavango Delta is a treasure-house of a wide variety of both land and water animals and birds. We saw elephant herds with babies, long-necked giraffe grazing in the tops of the thorn trees, troops of Chacma baboons rooting through the long grasses, zebra and tsesebe well-camouflaged in the shadows, saddle-billed storks…and lions.

The first sighting of a lion in the wild is sensational. We spotted this female lounging in the shade just a few feet off the road, watching us with her great, beautiful golden eyes. The animals seemed surprisingly relaxed around safari vehicles, but it’s essential to keep quiet and seated, especially around the big cats. Our guide told us that the animals see the vehicle and all its occupants as one big ‘animal’, but if the guests start making too much noise and moving around, the lions and leopards will recognize that there are several ‘prey’ inside and will attack.

This is the critical part of safety on safari: always do what your trained and experienced guide tells you to do. It will keep you alive – not that safaris are overly dangerous, but you can get yourself into trouble if you don’t follow the rules.

The guides are extremely knowledgeable about all the animals and how safely they can be approached, where the different animals like to hang out, how to read tracks in the sand and follow other clues (like a large concentration of vultures watching from a tree) to where a cat has just made a kill and is feeding.

One unique adventure in the Delta is a ride in a traditional canoe, called a mokoro. These canoes were the sole means of transport through the vast delta waterways for a long time. All of the guides on our safari were native to the area and had grown up poling a mokoro around the waters. In the cool morning air they drove us over to the muddy boarding area a short drive from our camp and helped us step carefully into the canoes. As they poled us out into the shallow floodplain, we glided silently and softly among the water grasses and sunlit lilies, slowing down to look at painted frogs, stick insects and exotic spiders on the stems of reeds, or watching monkeys cavort in distant palm trees.

For our morning tea break, our guides pulled into a small scrubby island and set up a table with thermoses and tins of cookies. Across the water, a big bull elephant waded up to another island and noisily tore up great chunks of grasses for his own breakfast.

There’s a section of the floodplain that’s deep enough to host hippos and crocodiles, and for that part we were taken out in a motorboat through avenues of papyrus and night lilies to watch the sun set in amber serenity over the still evening waters.

On our final morning in Nxabega, enroute to the little sandy airstrip to fly to our next camp, our guides spotted a lion hunt in progress and we stopped to watch.

It was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategy. A mother lioness (who happened to be collared as part of a wildlife study) prowled through the tall buff grasses, slowly but inexorably driving a young warthog toward the dirt mound that her daughter was perched on ready to pounce. When the warthog was close enough, in a flash the younger lioness had leapt and captured it. Then came the hardest part of the experience, hearing the heartrending cries of the little warthog, its own mother watching helplessly from a distance. This was nature in its most primal form, the cycle of life as one creature gave up its life to feed another – easy to recognize but difficult to witness.

After that piece of high drama in the grasses, we moved on to the airstrip to continue our adventure in a drier section of the Delta, the beautiful Khwai reserve in Moremi, on the other side of the floodplain.

Join me in two weeks for Part 2: Khwai. Next week we’ll embrace the playfulness of April Fool’s Day and look at the whimsy of board games, another great way to pass some of the time we currently have on our hands.

In the meantime, the excellent safari company that we used, &Beyond, has posted a playlist of African music that you can download from a selection of online music apps.

If you’d like to make an authentic African soup, here’s one of my favourite recipes, which I believe I got from an issue of Gourmet magazine many years ago (although I’m not positive). It’s quite easy to make in a couple of hours, and makes a good-sized pot of hearty, delicious soup that also freezes well. An important note: include all the fresh ingredients as stated (both colours of peppers, fresh garlic, etc.), or the soup will not taste as good. You can substitute water and some raw chicken thighs for 4 cups of the broth and the cooked chicken at the same time as the canned tomatoes – I prefer to do it that way instead of adding cooked chicken at the end. I also add extra chili flakes for a little more heat. If you’re vegetarian you could try substituting sweet potato for the chicken – I’ve never tried it that way but I think that might be an interesting flavour combo.

African Peanut Chicken Soup

serves 8 to 10

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 lg red pepper & 1 lg green pepper, each seeded and chopped into approx. ¾” chunks
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp peanut or canola oil
  • 28-oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • ¼  tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste 
  • ¼  tsp black pepper
  • ½  cup long-grain rice, uncooked
  • 1½  cups diced cooked chicken
  • 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

In heavy pot cook the onions, peppers and garlic in the oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the onions just begin to brown; add the tomatoes with the juice, the broth, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, and simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour.

Add the rice and the chicken and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Add the peanut butter, stirring until the soup is smooth. Serve hot with biscuits, rolls or fresh bread. This soup can be doubled or tripled and also freezes well.

Shelter in Place in style

Oh, what a world, what a world! moaned the Wicked Witch of the West in her wonderfully creepy castle on the hill, having unexpectedly been thwarted by a random bucket of water.

You had to admire her style. Although her world was in chaos – her sister and partner-in-crime had been crushed by a house, the powerful ruby slippers were out of reach on Dorothy’s feet and rival Glinda was helping Dorothy reach the Wizard – the Witch could torment Dorothy in the comfort of her own home through the magic of the crystal ball. Her servants, resplendent in their uniforms, were completely cowed by their mistress. A whole troop of devoted winged monkeys waited to run her errands.

Since we’re all staying close to home for a while, while the global media vigorously chases its tail, let’s make like the Wicked Witch, shelter within our castles and make the best of things.

If things start getting to you, it can be easy to start spiraling downward, but there are some effective ways to break that pattern.

Laughter is a great medicine

The cliché is actually true. Fortunately we have lots of resources to make us laugh, on television, funny memes and videos on the Internet, a humorous book… I find the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards website delightful, and each year I look forward to seeing the entries in the annual photo contest.

One of my own favourite wildlife photos from my travels captured a baby baboon giving its mother the classic ‘I didn’t do anything’ look.

Surround yourself with things that make you smile

Feather your nest, as it were, with things that cheer you up. Maybe it’s fresh flowers, or your favourite colours. I have a friend who collects anything penguin-themed; she has a small set of penguin figurines which get costumed for different holidays just because they make her smile. A long time ago I came to terms with being one of those people who’d live in a Halloween world year-round, and I do have a small number of select items that stay out all year, like this cute nesting measuring cup set I stumbled on a few years ago. How can you not smile when you’re measuring flour for a batch of cookies with a cheeky little skull?

Plan for something special down the road

Like the Witch cackling over her crystal ball, it’s a feel-good exercise to plan ahead. Indulge in some daydreams about putting together a post-pandemic celebration – a special family dinner, a nice trip – or even something sooner. My birthday is coming up next month, and as the likelihood of going out to a restaurant is slim, and as I love cooking and currently have the time to do it, I’m already planning what I’d like to make. Just because we’ll be eating at home doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy something delicious. Coming from a German background, I’m thinking of making sauerbraten, a tangy beef roast that needs marinating for several days. My recipe is from a German cookbook, but this one on All Recipes looks fairly similar. I went out today to pick up the roast and store it in the freezer.

Distraction/a little healthy Escapism

I consider myself something of an expert on this subject, having had chronic illnesses since I was a child and some deep family troubles in early adulthood. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the world. I love to read, and have a handful of favourite novels that I reread when I really need an engrossing escape. Sci-fi/ fantasy is my thing, so here are a couple of my older favourites:

The Eight, by Katherine Neville, a wonderful adventure about a female computer expert solving a mystery involving a mystical chess set belonging to Charlemagne across history and continents;

Summon the Keeper, by Tanya Huff, a funny and eerie story about a woman charged with sealing a tear in the fabric of the world inside an old, odd Victorian mansion in Kingston, Ontario, along with her crusty, old and very sarcastic cat — it has the best depiction of Halloween I’ve ever enjoyed;

and the modern Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning, about a young woman from Georgia who goes to Ireland to try and solve the murder of her sister, only to find herself in the middle of a world of nasty Fae and enigmatic, mysterious allies — brilliantly creative and well-written.

There are lots of movies that make me feel better – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The Mummy (1999), Death on the Nile (the amazing scenery in this movie actually spurred me on to book a bucket-list trip to Egypt, and the ensemble cast is a delight to watch). I also love some older movies like Jason and the Argonauts, pure adventure and wonderful special effects by the late great Ray Harryhausen, and Forbidden Planet, also a favourite of tv crime-writer Richard Castle.

Practicing Gratitude

March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. While that might seem like a pretty tall order at the moment, studies have shown that the practice of ‘gratitude’, of reflecting on and recognizing things in our lives to be grateful for, even tiny things, can significantly improve our mood. It may seem too simplistic, but thinking of things you’re grateful for seems to press a kind of ‘reset’ button in our brains. If you’re skeptical, you read up on the neuroscience of it on psychology.com.

The theme of this year’s IDoH is Happier Together, “focusing on what we have in common, rather than what divides us”. That seems to be especially appropriate right now.

www.actionforhappiness.org/coping-calendar

Things I’m grateful for:

  • The Internet, which allows me to keep abreast of the pandemic situation where I live, as well as global news (in small doses only!), to stream television for some entertainment and relaxation, and to work remotely as per the college where I’m currently employed
  • The burgeoning spring weather, with some sunshine and milder temperatures to elevate our moods
  • I also have the time to resume weekly blogs and share some thoughts/tips on how we can all weather these times until things start to get back to normal. There’s so much gloom in the media, I’d like to offer the alternative!

I particularly like this suggestion on the UK Telegraph’s 365 + 1 blog, to go to sleep in a better frame of mind by thinking of three good things that have happened that day. Give it a try, it really does help.

Being nice to yourself and others

These are stressful times. Be kind to yourself and to others. It feels a lot better than being grumpy and mean. Be considerate and polite when you’re out buying supplies. Check on elderly or ill neighours to see if they’re okay or need anything. Have phone or video chats with friends and co-workers as an antidote to the social distancing we’re practicing, and share a laugh together. Go out in the fresh air and walk around where there’s some nature to absorb the peacefulness.

And finally,

here’s an excellent article by the BBC, Coronavirus: How to protect your mental health.

Next week, a virtual trip to Africa, one of the most amazing, stunning, evocative places on earth. In the meantime, if you’d like to share some of your favourite ways to keep your spirits up, or a few of your favourite books/movies/resources, please do. Also, be silly a little 🙂

A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica