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.

Awe and the expansion of our internal universe

When I started thinking about this piece, I was really thinking about the nature of things that appeal to us. I love tales of the supernatural, and I love Halloween in particular as a time to celebrate the supernatural and bring a little of it into our workaday lives.

There’s a reason that stories like The Wizard of Oz, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia, Dracula, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and the Harry Potter books, are all so popular. It’s not just that they feature the supernatural and people living exciting lives – that’s part of their surface appeal. I believe the deeper appeal lies in that they allow ordinary people (and, through them, the reader) to be heroes. If you look at every protagonist’s journey, they all get to fight evil/monsters and become something larger than what they were at the start.

By reading their journeys, we experience the same emotions they do, and imagine ourselves in their shoes. In the really great stories, we experience awe.

Awe is an intense emotional state where we’re transported into a new universe – a place apart from our ordinary lives where we are engulfed in a larger consciousness. Awe makes us understand that our daily little problems are just that; that the political issues in the world are ridiculous posturing and power plays by leaders who rarely genuinely care about the people they are supposed to be serving. We get a glimpse of how magnificent life can be if we rise above all of the daily garbage.

We can experience awe in different ways.

Awe is a fundamental appeal of religion. I remember, as a child, trying to understand the world and the place of religion in it, having been raised as a Catholic and going to mass dutifully on the first Friday of every month to ensure my place in heaven. I loved the quiet parts of those early Friday morning masses – the soft flicker of candles, the hush of a nearly empty church when I could absorb the beautiful stained-glass windows transporting me to a time centuries ago when people got to meet Jesus in person.

One night I had a profound religious moment—I was thinking about the universe, and imagining what would happen if you had a giant blackboard eraser and started erasing us, and the planets, and the stars in the sky. What would you have left, I wondered, and it struck me that that was where God lived. I was so excited that I had to share it with my mom, who I was trying to comfort for some reason. I’m not sure I was able to explain it very well to her, at the age of about nine or ten years old, but it has stuck with me to this day.

A shared sense of awe can bring people together in powerful ways, and so the dark side of religion comes out when a religious leader begins to manipulate followers for his or her own ends. I’m still very spiritual, if not a frequently practising Catholic, because I prefer to believe that there is something beyond our short lives on earth, a more expansive universe where goodness exists for its own sake. However, as our spiritual leaders on earth are just human, like the rest of us, it’s critical that we apply objectivity to what they’re preaching, and can recognize when their teachings are oppressing any segment of their followers. Everyone on this earth should be equal.

Awe can be found throughout nature. A glorious sunset, the vast firmament of stars above us (hard to see when masked by city lights; if you’ve never appreciated them you should find a dark-sky preserve and take a look!), the power of waves pounding on a beach, the beauty in flowers and butterflies…

Humans and animals can fill us with awe, when someone does something amazing for the benefit of others, or delivers a powerful musical performance, or a pet saves its owners lives by alerting them to fire.

These moments of awe reaffirm our belief in goodness, a belief that gets battered daily by the news. It’s even worse now that we have news at our fingertips. The job of reporters is to attract our interest, and they rarely do it with feel-good stories. As a society we’ve gotten so caught up in the superficial stimulation from electronic media that we don’t take the time to cultivate the deeper emotions that come from quiet reflection and moments of awe that are all around us.

My personal journey of awe, the one that turned my entire life on its head and brought me to this place where I can help others experience awe for themselves and enter a larger universe, took place in Africa.

My husband and I had decided to celebrate our silver anniversary with a safari. I spent several years researching and planning, but by the time we left our home for Africa we were numb. Within the space of two years we’d had a death in the family and had to put both of our beloved dogs to sleep. My job had changed dramatically when my manager suddenly departed to pursue a different career, leaving the rest of our small department to flounder in deep waters. I remember walking around London, England, our first layover and a place we both love, feeling as if I was completely wrapped in cotton batten, insulated and separated from the outside world. It was a strange feeling.

Neither of us had great expectations of the trip – we try to experience each of our adventures as they unfold. We arrived in Africa just flowing with the current. Our safari guide met all of his seven guests at the small airport in Maun, Botswana, and loaded us into two small bush planes for the flight to our first bush camp deep in the Okavango Delta. Our little plane chugged along at 1,000 feet, low enough for us to see elephants and giraffes grazing among the acacia trees. When we landed on a short strip of sand in the middle of nowhere and piled into the open-sided safari truck for the hour-and-a-half drive through the bush to the camp, we were engulfed by the smell of the wild sage bushes – salty, pungent and unforgettable – scattered among the thorny acacias, tall and short palms, and towering termite mounds. Sights, sounds and smells bombarded our senses, and the cotton encasing our emotions started to disintegrate.

botswana safari 2007 card no 1 059-001

That night, we lay in our dome tents under the vast African sky, listening to the sounds of fruit bats and tree frogs all around, with nothing between us and the wild except a bit of canvas and meshing. Wild animals could easily prowl right up to our tents if they wished, and we’d been advised to go carefully and in pairs to the toilet tents during the night if we absolutely couldn’t wait until morning. I remember lying on my cot, snugly tucked under a duvet, and experiencing the awe of being in that legendary place. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and it shredded the last of that awful, numbing shroud that I’d been living in for so many months.

Our safari was filled with amazing moments – staring into the golden eyes of a lion lying at the side of the road just a few feet away from our truck, watching an elephant spray muddy water over itself, seeing a leopard in the wild, watching a troop of baboons romp and squabble. When we visited Victoria Falls I just stood with my mouth hanging open – having lived in the vicinity of Niagara Falls for most of my life, I was prepared to be only mildly impressed. But watching millions of gallons of the Zambezi River thunder over the Falls with an almost deafening roar, and seeing the resulting mist billow a thousand feet into the air, we were awe-struck at the power of Nature.

We fell in love with lions when we went on a nature walk with two young rescued males, Langa and Loco. We walked the bush with them, held their tails and scratched behind their ears, watched them explore their world. They were utterly adorable and showed us another side beyond the majestic predator they would one day become.

botswana safari 2007 card no 4 304

It wasn’t only nature that wowed us – our safari guide, with his vast bush knowledge and cheeky sense of humour, all the staff at the four bush camps we stayed at and the lodges in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the many other Africans we met, became like family. Their warm welcome and passion for their countries, their lack of materialism and deep relationship with nature, left an indelible impression on us.

By the end of the trip both my hubby and I were loathe to leave. We experienced intense culture shock arriving back home, and it took me a long, long time to find a way to integrate that experience into my regular life.

In the end, I decided that I wanted to help other people experience moments of awe and beauty, to understand what an incredible planet we live on if we take those first steps to transcend all the pettiness and materialism that seeps into our lives from outside forces.

We are one race of people, the Human Race, sharing our planet with animals, plants, insects, mountains, forests, oceans and rivers, sunsets and rainbows, and every part, down to the tiniest piece, is essential.

It’s easy to understand that, when you look around you and let awe in. It’s impossible to understand that when your face is glued to an electronic screen or your hearing is muffled by a headset. While I love a good computer game as much as the next person, and am, of course, bringing you this message through your computer or mobile phone, our attachment to electronics is increasingly isolating us from our fellow inhabitants on this grand planet. I believe we can trace a lot of troubles in our society to that source.

If you want to live in a larger world, one where you can see the best of humanity instead of the worst, where nature will fill you with both peace and awe in equal measure, where the universe can truly be seen in a grain of sand, a flower petal or the wings of a butterfly, you need only take those first steps along that path.

Great opportunities

Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe - photo of E Jurus
Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe – photo of E Jurus

Our modern world is so full of opportunities! You can live out just about anything you might want to put on your bucket list, or try out any type of job experience.

Although it wasn’t originally on my bucket list the first time I went to Africa in 2007, as soon as I came across the opportunity to do a bush walk with lions in Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls, I jumped at it. We’d be spending 9 days on safari first, looking at lions from the safety of a game-drive vehicle, but to actually be able to touch a lion!

It was an intense and absolutely amazing experience. I can’t describe to you what the sensation was like of being able to interact and even touch these powerful, regal beasts. The lions that you walk with aren’t completely wild — they’ve been rescued as small cubs and habituated to humans — but there are strict rules to follow, and you never forget that they could destroy you with a paw swipe if they so chose. To be able to safely get that close is a rare privilege.

Both times that I was lucky enough to be able to do the Lion Encounter (click here for more info), I observed volunteers working with the staff — yes, you can go to Africa and spend weeks with the cubs, helping to feed them and conduct behavioural research.

There are many organizations around the world that offer volunteer experiences, both with people/communities and with animals. Many opportunities are just for personal growth, but there’s an organization called Worldwide Experience that offers some fantastic opportunities for work that would look stellar on a resume. One of their newest packages is the Wildlife Veterinary Programme: 21 days working with the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. You’ll combine adventure and some unbeatable work experience! Visit the website for more info on this programme and all the other terrific opportunities they offer. As with any such opportunity, do your research to make sure it’s a good fit and that the organization resonates with you, and send me a message if you need any tips about travel to Africa.