Friday, October 15, 2010


What's Next?

I keep pressing the "new post" button and then staring at the empty box, thinking of the millions of long, long posts that I could compose. It's too intimidating. Instead, I'm going to break myself back in slowly, by posting pictures (as usual).

Now that I'm back in Victoria, the theme for this blog is decidedly less obvious. (In case you were wondering, the previous theme was: "Woo! Exotic travel! Life with the Bushmen!") I want to think a bit about what I'm going to write. Until I settle on a theme, it's going to be disjointed short posts interspersed with the occasional Botswana retrospective. I'll also post about the West Coast Trail.

Today it's the familiar mixture of excuses and amateur photography!

I took these last week, as I walked home from the university.

This October has felt like summer to me, but the leaves are still changing...

This isn't the most original or fascinating photograph, but the fact that I walk past this - through this - on even my most mundane strolls is... Remarkable. Moving through extreme contrasts gives you new eyes, a more acute sense of detail. From the Kalahari to the Pacific Northwest, I haven't quite gotten used to it yet.

To quote from the book I finished this morning, Nabokov's Pale Fire -

All colors made me happy: even gray.

My eyes were such that literally they

Took photographs.

Till next time...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

back at home

1. I am back in Canada.
2. I will continue writing in this blog.
3. I should write about What It All Meant, but that's very hard to do.

I've brought a lot back with me, and I've changed a lot. But it's all so overwhelmingly internal. Whatever I've learned, whatever I've experienced, has stunningly little impact on life in Canada, in North America. If you boil my two years down to a collection of abstract ideas, it's relevant: land issues, conservation, indigenous people, non-profit grassroots organizations, race, colonialism, poverty, disease. I'm back in Canada and I suppose I can talk about those things with people. The specifics, however, hold little meaning or relevance for anyone but me.

To be fair, many of my friends and family have been interested in hearing about my experiences. However, I am more aware than ever before that Africa as a whole, and particularly Botswana - small, overshadowed by South Africa, free of any front-page-worthy African Atrocities - registers as little more than a blip on the radar of the collective North American psyche. Africa is an uncomfortable topic. The questions I most commonly receive are, "Weren't you afraid you'd get AIDS?" "Was there a war going on?" and "Were you safe?" It makes sense; the overwhelming majority of media tends to cover Africa for three reasons: war, disease, and poverty. And pirates, but I suppose you can see the pirates as a consequence of the first three.

It is difficult for me to talk about my everyday life in Botswana. There are so few points of reference for someone living here. While I was there, I didn't do very much that contributes to the accepted life trajectory of a twenty-something. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have been to Botswana (not counting the ones I met in Botswana, of course). I don't think I've ever seen Botswana appear on television or in the newspaper in Victoria. And why should it, really? Two million people, a lot of desert. A local Canadian newspaper has other fish to fry.

I often have the unsettling feeling that the past two years didn't even happen.

I existed, for 24 months, in a strange alternate dimension known as Africa. I lived with a dwindling, semi-mythic people. I gave my blood, sweat and tears to a project that may never succeed.

I know it happened, I know I was there, and I can feel the changes within myself. The San are not myths or bizarre midgets, they are wise, wonderful, real people who became my closest friends. We email each other. Even if the campsite project doesn't succeed, the Huiku Trust now has an office, staff, funding, and the precedent and know-how to plan and implement their own ideas. I know these things. But sometimes I feel as though I must repeat them to myself, in my head, a private litany to remind myself that D'Kar was not a dream.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

i've left, i've left, i've left my dusty love

Jo'burg airport. I'm typing at the counter at the Vodacom store, trying to organize phone numbers, SIM cards, credit cards, flights, all the while praying that my extravagantly overweight baggage doesn't cause me to go completely bankrupt.

I've left Botswana.

I left D'Kar yesterday, amidst tears and last-minute farewells, and the usual disastrous detritus of my procrastination - loose ends, half-empty cartons of milk, dirty floors, nails and paper and clothespins lingering in the corners of my house. L is going to take care of it for me - thank god for my friends, I would never manage to stagger through life without them.

Bus to Maun. The river is still flooded - we took the detour around Toteng, the make-shift bridge looking just as sketchy as always, water being sucked under in disturbingly powerful whirlpools, lackadaisical water unit workers lounging around in their neon orange jumpsuits. Four tall, beautiful Herero ladies were on the bus, and they strode gravely across the bridge, their enormous petticoats swinging with each step, their bizarre cross-beam hats identifying them immediately. A drunk woman in a dusty red dress was shouting on the other side of the bridge, tottering to and fro, as her husband tried to call her back to the village.

Maun. Warmer than Ghanzi, the familiar smell filling the faded streets - what is it? Where does that so-particular Maun smell come from? There are any number of candidates - the proximity of the river, the humidity, the soil which is grey instead of Ghanzi's red... the mophane trees, the goats and donkeys, the trailing bougainvillea and occasional stands of eucalyptus. The exhaust from a thousand intrepid, broken-down taxis. I don't know. But I love the smell of Maun. It's a warm smell, with just an edge of something sharp, sour, dry. The smell of donkey dung or scorched dust, spilled beer outside of a roadside bar or a labourer's sweat. Exhaust from Land Rovers, the small splattered refuse of jicanas or sandpipers flying low over the river.

I've left Botswana.

I don't want to cry, but I don't know when I'll be back.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

lunch in the delta

Sketch from one of our lunches in the Delta, picnic on a little island. Watercolour and pastel pencils.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Mobile Safari

Like last time (see Okavango I and Okavango II, from last May), we went into the Delta with the mobile safari guide RD. RD is a guy I was introduced to through the Princeton alum that set up my position with Komku, and a fabulous safari guide – the best. We had a wonderful time with him last year and decided to reprise it this year, with a new round of family members. The trip was five: myself, my mother, my father, my aunt A and my cousin A.

We saw fantastic beasts, large and small, from tiny bee-eaters to kilometers-long congregations of elephants. I suppose everyone has their own favourite sighting from the trip, but my own was on the afternoon of the last day of our five-day safari. It was dramatic – hundreds of buffalo with a few giraffe mixed in, big male lions, the thrill of a predator-prey interaction (no active hunt, don't get TOO excited). It was aesthetically thrilling – the sunset, the waterhole and the big open sky and the thousand tines of sharp, pale buffalo horns poking out of the sea of brown hides. But overall, it was an afternoon spent observing animal behaviour. This is something you rarely get to experience on safaris; with most tourist safaris, it's much more of a drive-by shooting sort of event. The guide gets a tip that the lions are at water hole X, and you immediately rev into high gear, dash over to the water hole, snap photos of the lions, and are off to the next destination. This is a good method to get pictures of the Big Five in a short amount of time, but not a good method for understanding what's going on around you.

Having spent quite a lot of time observing animal behaviour for my studies and my thesis, I'm more inclined to be interested in animal behaviour than most tourists. But I believe that every safari tourist can and should be given the opportunity to understand and appreciate some of the behaviour going on around them, instead of just the pretty colours and big claws. As Richard Despard Estes, author of the renowned “Behaviour Guide to African Mammals,” (recommended reading!) writes in his introduction,

“Through daily contact with Ngorongoro visitors, I had become aware that the behaviour of the animals, which I found so engrossing, was largely unnoticed by most visitors and their guides. Their main effort went into seeking out rare or glamourous creatures like rhinos, cheetahs, lions, wild dogs, and leopards, and they spent hardly any time just sitting and watching the more common species that surrounded them. How often I saw vehicles drive right past (or through) herds of plains game that were involved in interesting and even dramatic activities. Whereas the sought-after species were found most of the time doing nothing more interesting than sleeping.” He goes on to write that, however, he found all such tourists were interested in his talks about animal behaviour, and I agree that almost anyone would be interested in animal behaviour if given the chance to explore, observe, and understand it.

Our adventure on the last afternoon was a great example of this.

We had been driving around in the morning, looking at everything we came across but aware that there were lions in the area and hopeful that we would run into them. However, by lunchtime we hadn't seen any. We returned to camp and settled in for our final safari lunch, tucking into the cook's usual extravagant smorgasbord – cold smoked meats, freshly-prepared meatballs, freshly baked breads, several salads, a cheese plate, and so on. Just before we'd arrived in camp, another guide had crossed our path and informed RD of the lions' latest position, as well as the approximate position of a large herd of buffalo that the lion were most likely tracking. We discussed this information over lunch, and RD did some thinking.

After lunch we headed out as usual. Not half an hour after leaving camp, we saw the buffalo crossing the road – we hadn't seen very many of them, and suddenly there were hundreds, rustling in the grass all around us, sticking their stolid bovine faces up to look at us and then bending back down to continue cropping the grass.

“Okay,” RD said. “Given where the buffalo are right now, I'm pretty sure that they're headed to these pans.” He raised his hand and gestured off to the right. “I'm also pretty sure that those two male lions are following them. They came out this way to follow the buffalo, and they're still going to be following them. They'll track them all day, singling out targets – looking for ones they might be able to take down, the ones that are lagging. Then they'll attack later, at night. So at this point they'll just be tracking, watching, not stalking. That's good because we'll be able to see them; they're not trying to stay out of sight right now. We probably won't see a hunt, because they tend to hunt at night, and the park rules say we have to be back at camp by dark – but we'll see the lions.” He paused, looking around at the bush, and the herd of buffalo, which was slowly moving off through the grass and bush. “These guys are pretty nervous. They know the lions are following them, and they've had tourists bothering them all day. I think we should leave them for now, and go wait at the pan – that way we won't scare them, we'll just be a silent part of the scenery when they come out to drink, and we can watch them drink and hopefully those lions will be there behind them, so we can watch the whole scene unfold. But if we keep following them they're maybe going to stay nervous, go back into the bush and just stay there, hiding.”

After a short discussion we all agreed to go along with his suggestion, and we made our way over the rough road to the pans. When I say “rough road,” I mean it: not a gravel road, not a dirt road with a few stones, but a dirt/mud/sand road bulging with tree roots, blocked by fallen branches, sticky with mud and eroded by the floodwaters and rain so that it boasts huge puddles that block the entire road (necessitating a detour around it, on the grass and through the bush). There are holes of black mud that can suck the staunchest 4x4 into a standstill; undulating sections of sand road that make your vehicle bounce up and down as though you were in a hip-hop music video; stretches of swamp where you must drive through a foot of water thick with flooded grass. The way Moremi is now, most self-drivers and tour guides refuse to go on many of the roads. For RD, it's a delightful challenge – test your knowledge and the ability of your vehicle, dredge up the memory of back roads you haven't used for 10 years and find that old alternate route, routes that younger guides have probably never heard of, much less traversed. We bushwhacked through roads that hadn't seen traffic for years, occasionally hopping out to machete branches out of our way as we muscled through.

But back to the buffalo.

We parked at the pan, perched on a hummock overlooking a wide, shallow pan and a line of bush that we hoped the buffalo would emerge from. RD cut the engine and we sat there quietly, talking and listening. I drew a picture. We all tuned our ears for the sounds of the buffalo. Another tourist car, thinking that we had spotted something, stopped and waited for awhile; after five minutes they lost patience and drove away. We continued to wait. There were several giraffes in the bush, their heads and necks visible above the vegetation, and we watched them to see what they would do – the buffalo, RD explained, were also watching the giraffes for their decision, relying on the great height and excellent eyesight of their neighbours. We would watch the giraffes to see what the buffalo would do. After about 30 minutes, we saw the giraffe moving towards us, and then we could hear the buffalo rustling in the bush. They began to emerge. We readied our binoculars and cameras.

But horrors – another car pulled up just as the buffalo began to walk towards the pan, engine roaring, occupants talking loudly and excitedly. The forerunners of the herd threw up their heads before they reached the pan, and regarded the new arrivals with suspicion. After a moment's consideration, they turned and headed back into the bush. The tourists drove away, satisfied with their quick snaps of the buffalo, little suspecting the huge herd that lurked in the bushes just out of sight.

Frustrated but not defeated, RD said that we were at the beginning of a series of several pans, and the buffalo would probably just move on to the next one. We fired up the engine and drove to the next pan, a few hundred meters away, and found a new viewing point.

This time we were rewarded. As if on cue, the herd appeared, melting out of the bush and moving towards the water. The first few were tentative, but then they seemed to deem it safe, and hundreds of buffalo surged out of the protective cover of the bush, splashing into the knee-deep pan and drinking deep. Where before there had been an empty field and a quiet pan, there was a splashing, crashing, chomping, chewing, snorting, shuffling, endless sea of buffalo. They milled around drinking and chewing mouthfuls of grass, their dark coats splattered with mud and their wide, wet noses glistening above their constantly-moving mouths.

Buffalo are one of the Big Five – one of the five African animals considered most dangerous to hunt. The other four are elephant, leopard, lion, and (black) rhino. The buffalo is deceptive; to the average tourist, it must remind them irresistibly of a domestic a cow. Buffalo don't move very quickly unless pressed, and they have a habit of standing and staring at you with big dopey eyes and a mouthful of grass, flicking their tails absentmindedly to rid themselves of flies, and tolerating the agile oxpeckers that cling to their backs searching for ticks. It is not a very intimidating stare. They look quite comical, especially when they have long wisps of grass hanging out of the sides of their mouth. Their huge horns, curling down on either side of their face, looks like a judge's wig. But arouse them, and they will overturn your vehicle, gore you and tear out your intestines or toss you high into the air with a flick of their razor-sharp horns. The horns form a thick, literally bulletproof plate on their forehead, and from there curve down into wicked points. They can run like hell if they feel like it, and when a giant brown tank with a bulletproof battering ram and two scimitars of death on its head is running towards you full-tilt, you tell me it's still a comical cow. Buffalo will protect each other within the herd and have been known to kill lions. (If you haven't seen Battle at Kruger, please go watch it now. Seriously.)

We sat in the car, snapping photos, studying the buffalo through our binoculars, and just enjoying being part of the enormous herd. The omnipresent rustling of their hooves and teeth, their breathing and the flick of tails, the fluttering of the ox-peckers – it was marvellous. The sun was setting and a rich golden light was cast over everything, bringing out the colour in their coats and limning their horns with light.

Suddenly, on the edge of the herd, appearing from the bush like dreams, the lions came. When the buffalo noticed them, every single head turned towards them, every ear pricked, every set of horns oriented towards their hunters. We all watched them, as the two male lions slunk along the edge of the bush, unhurried, gazing calmly at their prey. Presently they came to a stop and lay down behind a large stone. We couldn't see them anymore. The buffalo resumed grazing.

“They're not interested in hunting right now,” RD said. “They're still picking out their prey. They don't bother hiding from the buffalo; the buffalo know that they're there, they've known all along. When night comes, the lions will begin stalking, and they'll try to surprise the individual prey. But the buffalo know what they're planning.”

As we watched, the lions rose again, and then suddenly we heard the sound of roaring... but from behind us. At the first sound, the buffalo lifted their heads as one, and as one turned sharply towards the roaring. It was another group of lions, far off, calling to the two males.

The two males began walking across the plain, and as they reached half-way across, they began roaring in reply. It was bonechilling, the sound of impending violent death and primordial power. It sounds nothing like the MGM lion. It is a deep sound that has no beginning or end, no well-defined “roar!” that children can imitate. It shakes the ground and echoes across the land, a rough, throat-scraping sound that must surely come from the very tip of the lion's claws to travel like a wave through its body, gathering strength, before tearing its way out of the great cat's mouth. We were spellbound, like any other prey.

As we watched, pinned to our seats by instinctive terror, it seemed that the lions walked straight towards us. In reality they probably did not care about us at all – we were simply in the middle of the shortest path towards where they wanted to go. They stalked towards us on their gigantic, heavy paws, never ceasing in their roaring. As one male stopped to draw breath, the other would pour forth his roar in turn. They slowed as they passed us and looked up at us, amber eyes arrogant and incurious, huge jaws gaping slightly to show the edges of their teeth. They moved with heavy, powerful grace, their steps buoyant and elastic, the tips of their thin, muscular tails bobbing just above the ground. Their manes were thick and rough, wild matted shields to keep them safe from killing bites during their fights. Their fur was short, the skin stretched tightly over muscle and sinew, veins and tendons.

For a moment we all held our breath, filled with the delicious but terrifying knowledge that the lions could easily leap into the vehicle, tackle us in one fluid motion out of our seats and onto the bare earth beyond, and tear us limb from limb. But they wouldn't. And they didn't. They walked past us, resuming their roaring, and we all sank back in our seats.

The buffalo continued to watch with total alertness as the lions padded into the tall grass on the other side of the road, and then melted like tawny shadows, suddenly and completely, into the bush. “They're probably trying to get downwind of the buffalo, for the hunt later this evening,” RD said. We heard one last roar, and with that, it was time to move on. The park rules said we had to be back in camp by dark, and we were pushing sunset, with twenty minutes of driving left to go. Awed by the encounter, we left the buffalo to their eternal struggle to survive the night, and drove back to camp.

What made this day so remarkable was not that we saw a huge herd of buffalo, or that we saw lions, or even that we saw lions following a huge herd of buffalo; it was the way we followed the interaction for the entire afternoon, understanding where the buffalo were moving and WHY, and the pattern of the lion's behaviour. To understand is to be able to spend an entire afternoon enthralled and rewarded; to lack that understanding is to take five minutes of snapshots and drive away, never discovering the meaning behind the encounter. I'm delighted that we were able to have the former experience.

Friday, July 09, 2010

okavango drawings

I did quite a few drawings on this most recent trip to the Delta. I'm not sure if I've ever posted drawings/paintings on this blog before... I suppose because they're just quick sketches, nothing particularly finished or impressive... But it's nice to have a different view of the trip, so I'll be posting a few.

I love to draw when I'm travelling - drawing, though it cannot capture the detail that a photograph can, fixes the moments much more clearly in my memory. Something about the act of sketching, the intense concentration, puts my brain into a state more conducive to forming detailed long-term memories. When I look at a photograph, most often I cannot recall the exact moment that I took it; when I look back through my sketchbook, I can remember the weather, the people around me, the sounds, what I was thinking at the time.

Grey lowrie bird and a tree... I drew these at lunchtime, sitting on the ground by our camp, looking out over the pan and trying to draw the bird as it hopped around pecking for food. The tree, thankfully, sat still. Drawing animals is wonderful, but an exercise in patience and quick drawing - for every drawing that works out, there are several that fail because the animal just will NOT return to the pose you began drawing.

Giraffe - I was quite happy with these drawings. We came across a large herd of giraffe (if you want to be persnickety about your collective nouns, it was a "tower" of giraffe) and watched them for over an hour, as they bent their graceful heads to the treetops and walked majestically back and forth with their slow-motion steps. A young male was beaten off by the dominant male of the herd - their fight was like a gentle ballet, necks swung with heavy, ponderous movements, reminding me somehow of bull kelp swaying in the tide. Every motion of a giraffe looks slow-motion, underwater, as their impossibly long limbs swing through the air. When they stretch out to run (fast!), they appear to be moving too slowly to generate the breeze that blows back their tail-tassels.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Naukluft Preview

Okay, so this photograph isn't actually from Naukluft. We met up with the Cape Town Crew two nights before the hike started, and spent the day before the hike on an unexpected bonus day trip: Sessriem and the Sossusvlei dunes. Basically, without planning it, I got iconic dune photos as well as the exact photo on the cover of Lonely Plant: Southern Africa. Sweet deal! This is AH and I on top of one of the dunes.

The Naukluft Trail was mountainous, desert, and rocky. It was also stark, stunning, at times austere and at times voluptuous with colour and warmth.

Quiver Tree (Kokerboom)

Tree with social weaver bird nest.