A compassionate world in the making

The spectacular Okavango Delta in Botswana, where islands are linked by the paths of creatures who travel back and forth, sharing the ecosystem in harmony - photo by E Jurus
The spectacular Okavango Delta in Botswana, where islands are linked by the paths of creatures who travel back and forth, sharing the ecosystem in harmony – photo by E Jurus

I’ve met many people who are reluctant to travel to Africa, largely because the news media feature just outbreaks of violence and other ongoing issues in some of the countries.

But that’s not all of what Africa is, so I was very pleased to read today in the Charter for Compassion newsletter that Botswana has become the first country as a whole to join the Charter.  

Earlier this month, the chair of Botswana’s National Vision Council signed the Botho Declaration, which outlines the ‘seven Pillars’ of the country’s strategy to continue to create a “competitive, winning and prosperous nation”.

The Pillars of the strategy would serve any country in the world well –

  • An Educated, Informed Nation
  • An Open, Democratic and Accountable Nation
  • A Moral and Tolerant Nation
  • A United and Proud Nation
  • A Safe and Secure Nation
  • A Prosperous, Productive and Innovative Nation
  • A Compassionate, Just and Caring Nation

Details are available on the Vision 2016 website .

Having been to Botswana twice and having met/worked with many of its lovely people, I’m not surprised at all that the country is the first in the world to have dedicated itself to the cause of global compassion, but I think it’s highly ironic that a nation on a continent that many people fear to visit has joined the Charter before countries in North America or Europe.

The Charter for Compassion organization supports the ideal of having all nations follow the Golden Rule, something I support personally and have posted about on this blog. What a great vision to spread this concept around the globe!

You can read much more about the Charter on its website, and you can sign up yourself as an individual, or a group/organization that you belong to if you also believe that we can create a compassionate world. The website also features numerous resources for exploring.

At this time of year, when it’s important for those of us who have much to be compassionate to those who don’t, I hope this website will inspire you to think of ways to bring more compassion to your own life. Be kind to relatives as well as strangers, don’t look away from the homeless, help animals, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself as well.

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.

For the love of flying

Flying over the Amazon river basin
Flying over the Amazon river basin – photo by E Jurus

I collect airports. Not as in so-rich-I-can-buy-them, but as in so many strange adventures in them. My first-ever jet flight was to California to visit friends, who arranged for us to take a side trip to Las Vegas, so buy the time we returned home I was a veteran of 6 different plane trips. It didn’t take me long to discover that I love flying. I’ve always been intrigued by airplanes – the magic of how these huge machines can get in the air, and the speed of takeoff. When I was 16 I cadged a ride on a small prop plane – a 4-seater twin-engine Cessna. A Hamilton company had brought several of their small  planes to a local air show for display, and I was there working in a Kiwanis food booth. I found a kindred spirit in one of my co-workers, and because our booth was the farthest out and had little business, we had some time to check out the planes. The organizers closed our booth for the Sunday of the air show, but we still had our passes to get in, so we both returned on Sunday and chatted up some of the pilots for the aircraft company, who offered to let us fly with them to Hamilton and back as they returned all the small planes to their home base. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done to that point. We even got to help pull the planes from the grass to the airstrip – we felt very cool! That adventure stayed with me for many years, and was perhaps my real introduction to making my bucket list dreams come true (although the ‘bucket list’ concept wouldn’t make an appearance for another 34 years. After our trip to California, the next flying adventure that my hubby and I shared was on our honeymoon, and that really was an adventure. We flew the now-defunct Eastern Airlines from Buffalo to Puerto Rico, where we had a connecting flight on another now-defunct airline, Prinair. Prinair was a small island-hopper service that at the time was the main access to the Caribbean islands. The flight to Puerto Rico was fine, but as we waited in line to board the final leg from there to St. Thomas, we could hear a businessman behind us talking about how many times Prinair had crashed in the ocean. When we boarded the plane, a small 18-seater with just 2 rows, we both noticed that the door to the cockpit was shaped a fair bit like a casket. After everyone was aboard, our pilot seemed to be channeling Mario Andretti – he taxied to the main runway, we’re guessing looked both ways quickly, gunned the engines, turned onto the runway and lifted off without any preamble. By now we’d started to laugh hysterically. I became quiet, though, when partway into the flight I looked out at the wing on my side and noticed that not only were all the bolts in the housing rattling around but some were missing entirely. My newly-pronounced hubby noticed my lack of conversation and finally coaxed out what was bothering me. He tried to reassure me, but we were both intensely relieved when we started our approach to St. Thomas. Great view out the window of the magnificent blue-green waters surrounding the island, but because St. Thomas is essentially just a mountain in the Caribbean, like a slightly melted giant chocolate chip, the plane then had to land quickly and jam on the brakes before we drove into the mountainside. I came very close to kissing the ground when we disembarked. Since then we’ve had all kinds of interesting departures and landings around the world. We probably had the most concentrated amount of fun when we visited Southeast Asia in 1994. Our first stop was Hong Kong when the original airport was still in use. The landings at Kai Tak were also onto short runways, so jumbo jets had to skate in just over the roof tops  – we could wave to people hanging out their laundry – before touching down and jamming on the brakes. Leaving from there to Bangkok was equally entertaining: we walked out of the hangar to board a shuttle bus, which then proceeded to drive around for 45 minutes looking for our plane amongst a bunch of airplanes parked together like cars. The driver would pull up to an aircraft, look at the number on it, shake his head and move on. We started laughing hysterically for that one too. On our approach to Singapore, in the ‘welcome’ announcements by the flight attendant, she finished off by telling us that in Singapore the penalty for smuggling drugs is Death. Alrighty then! We didn’t see anyone make a mad dash to the washroom before landing though. Our landing in Jogjakarta was the most fun of all. There was a single runway that we rolled up and down along like a low-level rollercoaster. The arrivals building was essentially a large shed with a rectangular hole in the wall, through which the baggage handlers tossed luggage onto about a 6-ft long belt that spit the suitcases off onto the floor where we were all standing around waiting. Thank goodness all our souvenirs were well wrapped!

A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta - photo by E Jurus
A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta – photo by E Jurus

Africa has long been a challenge – flights funnel into just a handful of main hubs. For our first safari, to Botswana in 2007, we spent about 2 days getting there, with an 11-hour layover in London, England before a 10-hour flight to Johannesburg and then a 2-hour flight to Maun in Botswana. From there it turned into a real African adventure as we boarded small bush-planes to reach our first 2 safari camps in the Okavango Delta, which could only be reached by air. The bush planes chug along at about 1,000 feet, sometimes feeling like they aren’t moving at all, but you can watch the African landscape unfold below you as you go, sometimes catching glimpses of elephants or giraffes for your first introduction to the wonderful wildlife you’ll soon be getting much closer to. When Mike and I planned that safari, we originally wanted to visit Botswana and Tanzania, but it was next to impossible to travel between the 2 countries without a great deal of complicated maneuvering as well as lots of extra time and/or money. Now, however, a low-cost carrier based in Tanzania, fastjet, is introducing ‘international’ flights to several other countries in Africa. This is momentous news in the world of safari planning because people will finally be able to get from southern Africa to eastern Africa relatively easily. Visitors will be able to fly between Dar es Salaam and either Johannesburg in South Africa or Lusaka in Zambia for fares are expected to start at only around $100US, opening  up lots of new options for safari enthusiasts. Guess that means Mike and I will just have to go back to Africa once again to check them out!

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

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I remember vividly the first time I saw Victoria Falls in Africa. We’d travelled on our first safari specifically to see the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a unique wetland where animals roam across a shallow flood plain formed when the Okavango River drains into the Kalahari Desert, and Victoria Falls, one of the most famous natural spectacles in the world. I wasn’t sure how impressed we’d be with the Falls, though – after all, my hubby & I have lived just 15 minutes away from Niagara Falls since we were children, but I’ve always been fascinated by the story of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of Victoria Falls and the man who gave them their name.

Spray from Victoria Falls billows over 1,000 ft into the air - photo by E. Jurus
Spray from Victoria Falls billows over 1,000 ft into the air – photo by E. Jurus

We entered the park that protects the Falls (points over the 3-ring circus that Niagara Falls has turned into), had our orientation talk, and followed the path towards the Devil’s Cataract, the first part of Victoria Falls that you encounter. Then the Falls came into view, and I stood there literally with my mouth hanging open. May is high-water season at the Falls, when 2 million litres of  Zambezi River rushes over the precipice every second, with a thundering noise so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves speak. When the water reaches the bottom, over 300 ft below, it churns up spray rising over 1,000 ft into the air, obscuring the sun and falling back down as a heavy rain that turns the banks of the Zambezi from a dry savannah to a lush tropical jungle. The local people called it Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”, and we could see why. I took a movie clip with my newly acquired digital camera so that everyone back home could hear and see what it was like.

Victoria Falls has been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and there’s so much history attached to it as well, much of it tied closely to David Livingstone, one of the most famous explorers in history. He was born 200 years ago, in March 1813, and many areas in Africa associated with his journeys are celebrating the bicentennial with special events and safaris.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary who travelled to Africa to spread Christianity and became an instrumental figure in ending slavery. He explored a large part of the continent, braving serious injuries and illnesses on his mission. He was led to Victoria Falls by his native bearers in November 1855, and an island in the middle of the Zambezi River above the falls is named after him, as well as the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the falls.

He made international headlines when he disappeared without any outside messages around 1866 and journalist adventurer Henry Morton Stanley was sent on behalf of the New York Herald to find him, which Morton finally did in 1874 near Lake Tanganyika, purportedly uttering the now-legendary phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone and Stanley formed a strong friendship, and Livingstone was much loved by the local Africans, so much so that several of them wrapped his body in bark and sailcloth and accompanied it to London so that an official identification could be made. Livingstone is buried in Westminster Abbey with the following inscription:

“BROUGHT BY FAITHFUL HANDS OVER LAND AND SEA HERE RESTS DAVID LIVINGSTONE, MISSIONARY, TRAVELLER, PHILANTHROPIST, BORN MARCH 19. 1813 AT BLANTYRE, LANARKSHIRE, DIED MAY 1, 1873 AT CHITAMBO’S VILLAGE, ULALA. FOR 30 YEARS HIS LIFE WAS SPENT IN AN UNWEARIED EFFORT TO EVANGELIZE THE NATIVE RACES, TO EXPLORE THE UNDISCOVERED SECRETS, TO ABOLISH THE DESOLATING SLAVE TRADE, OF CENTRAL AFRICA, WHERE WITH HIS LAST WORDS HE WROTE, “ALL I CAN ADD IN MY SOLITUDE, IS, MAY HEAVEN’S RICH BLESSING COME DOWN ON EVERY ONE, AMERICAN, ENGLISH, OR TURK, WHO WILL HELP TO HEAL THIS OPEN SORE OF THE WORLD” (Westminster Abbey website, http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/david-livingstone)

If you’re planning a trip to Africa and are interested in visiting some of the places that David Livingstone explored and mapped, this year several safari companies are offering trips dedicated to portions of Livingstone’s travels, including:

– Africa Adventure Consultants are featuring 4 safaris based around different areas that Livingstone explored, including In Livingstone’s Footsteps: Victoria Falls and Beyond, which spends 10 days visiting the Zambian side of the falls and a safari in Botswana

David Livingstone’s Bicentenary Birthday Safari with Robin Pope Safaris (which devotes 11 days to exploring Malawi

– the 15-day Footsteps of David Livingstone safari available through Sun Safaris, which visits Victoria Falls, Zambia and Lake Malawi.

One of the many views of Victoria Falls from a helicopter - photo by E. Jurus
One of the many views of Victoria Falls from a helicopter – photo by E. Jurus

If you can’t make it this year, you can visit Victoria Falls as part of a safari at any time through any number of safari companies; usually at least one day in Vic Falls is included on safaris in the surrounding area: Zimbabwe, Zambia or Botswana. As well as the history of Vic Falls, the area is one of the adventure capitals of the world, so I’d recommend scheduling 2-3 days if you can. Activities to consider include:

  • A flight over the Falls, which are so large (a mile wide) that it’s impossible to get a sense of the full extent of them from the ground. I’ve done a helicopter flight and really enjoyed it, but there are also flights on microlights (small very light 2-seater planes), although you can’t take your own camera on a microlight (there are wing cameras to record the flight for you).
  • Walking across to the other side of the Falls — you can walk across the Victoria Falls Bridge, although you’ll need to purchase an entry Visa for the day at the border. There are more views of the Falls from the bridge, and the views of the Falls are quite different depending on whether you’re on the Zimbabwe side or the Zambia side. The most extensive views are in Zimbabwe, including Devil’s Cataract and the central curtain of water, but on the Zambian side you can get right up to the water’s edge (carefully), and there’s even a quieter section of water that you can wade in — local residents can often be found there cooling off on a hot day.
  • You can bungee jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge at one of the most famous bungee locations in the world, but check current safety records first, as there was a non-fatal accident in January 2012 when a jumper’s heavy cable broke and the woman dropped into the water. Luckily it took place at low-water season — in May the rapids are so strong they can’t run white water rafting. You can also Zip-line and Abseil across the gorge.
  • This is also one of the greatest places to do white-water rafting, but depending on the water levels the rapids below the Falls, as they churn through the narrow canyon carved over millions of years, can reach Category 6! If you’re travelling at high water season, don’t book and pay in advance — if the rafting isn’t running, you won’t be able to get your money back.
  • Who could resist a cruise on the African Queen? - photo by E. Jurus
    Who could resist a cruise on the African Queen? – photo by E. Jurus

    A sunset cruise on the Zambezi is de rigeur — you can even do it on the African Queen, as we did (for all fans of the Bogart & Hepburn movie). You can see some wildlife on the cruise, but the real draw is the sunset, and it is magnificent.

  • Walk with lions! One of our most incredible experiences in Africa has been to do a 1.5 hour bush walk with lions. The African Lion Encounter is a program that rescues lion cubs who wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild (orphaned, injured, lame), habituates them to people for several months, and then allow visitors to walk with them through a private game reserve. It’s a rare and very special opportunity to spend time with the juvenile lions, and even to be able to touch them. It was our first lion walk that changed my life and eventually led to the creation of Lion Tail Magic.

All of these activities, and many others, can be booked through organizations like Safari Par Excellence, the company we used ourselves (http://safpar.com/activities.html).

The Zambezi Sun resort - photo by E. Jurus
The Zambezi Sun resort – photo by E. Jurus

There are many places to stay in the Victoria Falls area. We stayed at Matetsi Water Lodge, a gorgeous, quiet and very romantic lodge on the Zimbabwe side about 40 miles outside of town (the lodge can provide transportation into town for activities), and we’ve also stayed on the Zambian side at the Zambezi Sun resort, which is located just steps from the Falls and inside the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. While it’s a busy resort popular with business groups who want a quick taste of Africa, you can watch the spray from the Falls create rainbows over the rooftops and enjoy the animals (no touching!!!) that wander freely through the resort grounds.

The town of Livingstone in Zambia is a pretty town with a bit of a frontier feel to it, and one of the few places where you can buy memory cards if you run out! There’s also a fascinating museum dedicated to the life of David Livingstone and the history and culture of Zambia. The town is hosting a series of international events this year for the bicentennial.

If you’d like to learn more about David Livingstone and his explorations, there are a couple of terrific websites, Livingstone Online and the National Museums Scotland Livingstone exhibit site.

Watch our website for future articles about what it’s like on safari and how to prepare for one, or contact me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com. I’ll be happy to give you any feedback that I can about travel to my favourite place in the world, the magnificent continent of Africa. Happy exploring, virtual or otherwise!

Lessons in a sunset

Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 - photo by E. Jurus
Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 – photo by E. Jurus

I was driving home this evening from a funeral home; a friend’s mother, who’d been ill for quite some time, passed away unexpectedly from a sudden heart attack. As I crested our local skyway, in the distance a beautiful sunset lit up the sky in a rare burst of glory. It seemed a metaphor for life — moments of grief counterbalanced by moments of beauty. We all know the impermanence of life, but it’s hard to accept when we lose someone close to us. If I’ve learned anything from all the friends, family and pets we’ve lost over the years, it’s that time doesn’t really heal wounds, it just makes them bearable so that you can do what you have to do to survive, which is to move on. After I lost my beloved dog Ramses 8 years ago, it ripped my heart out; it took me months before I could even say the words “he’s dead”. Gradually I was able to go a day or two without crying, then maybe a week, then longer and longer, but even as I write this I feel the pain of his loss and miss him enormously. I wouldn’t change having had him in my life — his love and courage taught me a lot. And so life goes on, and after our adorable second dog Isis passed away the following year, also from old age and sickness, my husband and I went on a trip to Africa that we’d been putting off for a while, and we discovered magic and some healing in the beauty of nature.

This evening I couldn’t stop anywhere to take a photo of our local sunset, so instead I offer you one of the magnificent sunsets we enjoyed on that first safari. As I drove down the far side of the skyway, watching Nature’s artwork in the sky and musing on the meaning of life, I watched an idiot driver cross two lanes of traffic to take the exit ramp, just barely missing the concrete abutment. Sigh. The lesson of the sunset was clearly lost on whoever the driver was, as was the concept of driving safely. Here are two thoughts to take home with you:

1. We only get to watch so many sunsets in our life — don’t squander them!

2. Nature is the mother of all that’s great on our planet — we can only use the tools she gives us to make beauty, or ugliness. Which would you like your legacy to be?