Rich’s South Africa Diary

Sept 12 – Oct 1, 2012


Table of Contents (Click to jump to entry)

Sept 12:  Cape Town Ladies Sing Dis Song, Doo Dah….

Sept 13:  The Versatile Ostrich Egg

Sept 14:  DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum…

Sept 15: Penguin Lust and Other Animal Tales

Sept 16: High Speed Tourism

Sept 19:  Accumulated Awesomeness

Sept 20:  Okavango Delta (Botswana)

Sept 21:  Okavango Delta II

Sept 22: First Pole, Then Dig (Okavango III)

Sept 24: Zambia

Sept 29: Zimbabwe

Sept 29:  Four Days’ Worth of Journal in One Gigantic Email (Sept 25-28)

Oct 1:   The Grand Finale


Sept 12:  Cape Town Ladies Sing Dis Song,  Doo Dah….

Just wanted to let everyone know that we have arrived  at our B&B in Cape Town, a mere 41 hours after leaving our office at 2:30pm Monday.  (FYI time zone here is EDT + 6 hours).  One of our smarter moves was taking advantage of our 8 hour layover in Frankfurt ("Great Airport Shopping, Duty-Free AND Nazi-Free!") to rent a room at the airport Sheraton to shower and nap.

All of our flights and connections went smoothly save the last hop from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  Our Kulula Air flight was canceled so they rebooked us on British Air and we ended up getting in an hour earlier than originally planned, a small blessing which after nearly two days of travel we gratefully accepted.

I had a nice chat with a pleasant French stewardess on the Chicago-Frankfurt leg, who was sitting somewhat awkwardly with an oxygen tank cradled in her lap due to a sick passenger, who happened to be American.  She was very friendly and explained in the most charming possible way that while Japanese passengers were utterly stoic and undemanding, American passengers were a pain in the neck.  For one thing, they only ever drink Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite, and are always asking for no ice, extra ice, whatever, so the plane always ends up running out of either the sodas or the ice.  I relayed this to Alice, who when the drink cart came around asked for a Diet Coke as sheepishly as possible.

Non-sequitur (I'm kind of free associating here): a lot of high end shopping in Frankfurt airport, even including a Tiffany.  My favorite, though, was a big jewelry store called Christ (that's not a typo), whose TV ads one can only speculate about.  I envision a bearded guy in robes and sandals admiring his Rolex watch while the voice-over says "Jewelry by Christ...small miracles."

Our flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg was on an Airbus 380, technically known in the aeronautics community as "one goddamn big airplane".  Its capacity is nearly 50% more than a 747, with two full stories of seats, like a double-decker plane.  It looks like a 747 whose characteristic hump runs the full length of the plane.  Ours held 560 people.  We were on row 65, about halfway back on the lower floor. Jeez.  Very impressive,  nearly enough to offset the food, which was awful.  (We were on Lufthansa... very efficient but OMG can they not cook.  When breakfast came we were genuinely unable to identify it.)

Our touchdown in Africa was in Johannesburg before changing planes.  Jo'burg is inland and you can tell that we're in the dry season: the landscape there is flat and scrubby, with broad expanses of dead grass that make the airport, which is very spread out, look like a vast golf course that hasn't been watered in ten years.  Cape Town, however, is a different story since it is on the coast, sandwiched between the ocean and a low mountain range, rather like San Diego.  It is greener -- though not really green.  The drive into town from the airport goes past sprawling primitive shantytowns of astonishing density.  Our driver identified himself as "colored", i.e. mixed race (that term as used here referring to either black + anything or Asian) and cheerfully pointed out which of the slums were inhabited by colored versus black residents.  The races mingle freely in the city but at least among the poor classes still live apart.  He also, to my amazement, opined that yeah, apartheid was bad, but said that it was during that era that all the roads and infrastructure got built.  (I couldn't help but think about the famous "What have the Romans done for us?" conversation in "Life of Brian".)

Gotta go now...going to walk around the waterfront.  City tour tomorrow, including the prison where Mandela was held for 17 years.  More journal as time and energy permit.  Feel free to share.

Sept 13:  The Versatile Ostrich Egg

Several years ago I made a ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and was struck by the fact that essentially every souvenir, furniture, and craft store in town carried inventory that as nearly as I could tell was constructed entirely out of some combination of rough wood, horseshoes, and antlers.  But based on our shopping experiences of the past 24 hours I would have to add ostrich eggs to that holy trinity of tchotchke construction.  There is barely a store in Cape Town that does not carry an extensive line of ostrich egg-based items, including lamps, sculptures, mobiles, and candleholders.  They come etched, carved, glazed, painted... you name it.  I have not actually seen any furniture or cereal bowls made out of them, but I am confident that this is entirely because we have not looked hard enough.

We walked down to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront last night, which is Cape Town's equivalent of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and one of the major local tourist draws, with lots of shops and restaurants, an aquarium, museum, etc.  It's quite nice, and the shopping indeed very good.  We enjoyed it despite our fatigue, though it didn't blow us away; it really is quite a lot like the Inner Harbor.  We did have a very nice seafood dinner at a Greek restaurant before taking a taxi back to our B&B and collapsing.

Today was our first real look at the city, though unfortunately the weather was not altogether cooperative: a bit chilly (high of 60F) and overcast with off and on drizzle.  As predicted it cleared up late in the afternoon.  We had booked a private driver/tour guide to take us around the city, and he did a good job of optimizing where to go when -- e.g., up in the hills versus down by the water -- to avoid the rain.  He was a voluble, knowledgeable mixed-race fellow named Yaseen, 54 years old.  By mixed race in this case I mean a mixture of Indian and Cape Malay, which I will explain in a moment.

One of the major ethnic influxes to South Africa was from Malaysia in the 17th century, brought there by the Dutch as laborers.  They intermarried among the local tribes, mostly the San and Hottentots, and the resulting mixture is called Cape Malay.  They tend to be short, with negroid features but lighter skin and deep set eyes.  Under apartheid they counted as "colored", as distinct from the tribal blacks.

All this ethnic mixing and distinction is reflected in the local speech as well. There are three major local languages: English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.  Most signs are in all three, and many people speak all three, though the first two predominate among the middle and upper classes.  Everyone speaks English, but accents vary wildly depending on which of the three languages is his or her first language, and on what kind of language environment he/she grew up in.  Particularly when speaking on the phone, I find many of the people surprisingly difficult to understand.  I have not tried speaking it but I find that I can read Afrikaans without too much difficulty because it is so close to Dutch.  (Speaking it would be a challenge: despite being written the same, the pronunciation of vowels is very different between Dutch and Afrikaans, and there are grammatical differences as well.)

The city's "look and feel" is not unlike San Francisco, hilly and rather European looking, and an odd jumble of affluence and poverty.  The government buildings look variously English or Dutch colonial, as you might expect.  It's interesting enough but the city's real attraction is its natural beauty, spilling to the sea at the foot of the mesa-like Table Mountain, which dominates the view from anywhere in the city.  It was alas largely shrouded in drizzly mist today, though Yaseen did drive us around on it for a while.  (We saw the monument to Cecil Rhodes that is there.)

After touring the city in the morning, our plan was to take the ferry across to Robben Island and tour the prison where Mandela was held.  Yaseen had suggested taking a late afternoon tour that would give us a sunset view of the city on the return ferry.  He dropped us off at about 1:30; five minutes later we learned that until December (thus summer here) the last ferry leaves at 1:00. Oops.  So we bought tickets for Sunday morning (our last day in Cape Town) and took a taxi back up the mountain to see Kirstenbosch, which is Cape Town's famous botanical garden.  Would've been more impressive on a sunny day but at least the rain had stopped by then as predicted.  One of the big attractions is a type of plant called a Protea, and today was a big deal because a particular variety called a King Protea was in bloom.  At least Alice tells me it was a big deal: we traipsed up and down the hillside for about an hour and a half, looking for the famous, uncommon, and apparently invisible King Protea.  We saw lots of flowers and had a commanding view of the city from the mountainside but never did find the damn thing.

We got back to the B&B about 6pm, where we were met by the owner who ruefully informed us that our shark cage dive, scheduled for tomorrow, had been canceled due to rough seas.  Rescheduling was not an option because we have other stuff booked for Saturday and we leave on Sunday.  Pity, but that's the way it goes; I'll have to stanch the flow of testosterone by mugging a tourist or something.  As consolation, we're going on a winery tour tomorrow, which concept excites me about as much as you'd expect, but which will get us out into the very photogenic countryside.

Dinner tonight (we'll go out in a few minutes) at an ominous-looking restaurant down the street called "Marco's African Place", which the B&B owners described as "very authentic".  I'm not altogether sure what this means but we're about to find out...


Tonight's dinner turned out to be one of those unexpected pleasures that make travel so much fun. Marco's was authentic, all right: I passed on the ox tripe and whole sheep's head in favor of the warthog cutlet with crocodile steak, with a side of umngqusho.  (Every word in that sentence is true.). Crocodile tastes like chicken; warthog tastes (unsurprisingly) like pork, and is probably also not kosher.  Umngqusho is a starch favored by the Xhosa people and I can only suggest that you Google it; it is vaguely like baked beans.

I *was* going to go for what the menu billed as the Pan African Platter,which comprised cutlets of ostrich, kudu, and springbok.  The latter two alas are photogenic at the National Geographic level, and I was afraid that if I ate them then I'd take too much heat from assorted loved ones.  Fortunately warthogs and crocodiles are ugly.

Alice had a local fish called kingklip, which is similar to cod; her side dish was a starch with the unappetizing name of pap.  It was a white blob that tasted sort of like grits with a smoother consistency; it was inoffensive and largely tasteless.  In other words, it was, um, pap.  (Postscript: it is basically polenta.)

The food, in short, was an experience by itself.  It was good but the novelty was more important than the taste; I will not be scouring local Maryland, DC, and Virginia restaurant menus in search of warthog.  But what really made the evening was the entertainment, a rollicking local band named Ilitha Lelanga. Consisting of three marimbas, a drum set, and a bongo played by a rotating crew of three men and three women (the women danced while the men played, and sometimes played as well), the group played local songs as well as Western rock with an African beat.  It was a hoot...we bought their CD and stayed for quite a while to watch and listen.  A real find.

Other news: shark dive is back on for tomorrow, so call me "Stumpy" and wish us luck.  Full report tomorrow if I am still able to type.

Sept 14:  DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum…

We just got back from our shark dive, which I am happy to report left us extremely impressed and with a full set of fingers and toes (though in my case it was a near miss).

Weather was beautiful today, mostly sunny and in the low 70's, so we had a spectacular view of both the mountain range and the coast during the two hour drive to Gaansbaai, home to about 47 different shark cage and whale watching outfits.  Every other building by water's edge seemed to have a cutesy tour operator name, e.g., The Shark Lady.  The reason for this is that the town sits at the edge of a large protected bay with a reef system, so both the southern right whales and the great white sharks like to hang around there.  We were in a group of 34 people, 32 of whom were attendees on excursion from the International Aquarium Conference currently going on in Cape Town and who had arrived on their own bus about ten minutes after we did.

The tour operator, Marine Dynamics, is a big research and conservation organization and so does these dives in a relatively eco-friendly way, hence the attraction to the aquarium guys (and to us). Nonetheless, 34 people plus crew on a relatively small boat was a lot (their maximum group size is 40), so there was quite a bit of bumping around and excuse-mes both during the very bumpy and windy ride out to the site and when putting on wet suits.

Today's sea had a lot of chop and high swells, so this excursion was decidedly not for the easily seasick. Moreover the water temperature was a genitalia-shriveling 60 degrees, so those thick wetsuits were a strict necessity.

The experience is rather different than the Hollywood image in your head: you are not alone in a cage, dangling 30 feet below the surface while a crazed Great White the size of a pickup truck repeatedly rams the bars in a cinematic attempt to consume you.  The only accurate part of that picture is the pickup truck: these things are genuine monsters.  But the way it works is that the cage is long and thin, about 18' long, a little taller than a person, and about an arms-length deep. It holds seven people at a time standing in a line shoulder to shoulder, and it is lashed to the side of the boat with the top of the cage about a foot above the water.  You half stand, half float upright in it and stabilize yourself with a grab bar that runs the length of the cage at shoulder height.

The crew basically fishes for sharks by tossing ropes out, one at each end of the cage, baited with about 5 big salmon heads clumped together at the end.  This particular angling technique works really, really well. The water is clear enough that the crew can spot the shark homing in on the bait, which they then yank close to the cage and call out to the divers in the cage to submerge, which you do by holding your breath and dunking yourself.  There's no scuba gear other than wetsuit and mask; there's no need since each encounter only lasts 5 or 10 seconds.  We were also told beforehand in unambiguous terms that keeping our hands and feet inside the cage would be a very good idea.

Sometimes the shark strikes the bait, in which case you are treated to the sight of a VERY BIG open mouth with many, many teeth, coming right at you underwater.  Most times the sharks make a hard turn and swim alongside the cage, at a distance of approximately zero feet.  The biggest of these guys is about 15' long (hence the pickup truck remark), and let me tell you, that is something to behold.  I was not paying proper attention at one point and rested my wrist on the grab bar, thereby allowing my hand to dangle by a few inches outside the cage.  Big mistake, since about one second later Jaws came gliding along with open mouth and I snatched my hand back in.  That particular shark was our closest encounter: he actually scraped along the full length of the cage (and in fact was nearly as long as the cage itself).  It was just an astounding, exhilarating experience for both of us.

Because there were 34 passengers and a finite amount of time, we rotated through groups of 7, with each group having about 20 minutes in the cage.  That doesn't sound like a lot, but in fact it was entirely satisfying: we saw about 10 sharks, most of them within six feet of the cage and several a lot closer than that.  Outside, watching the other groups in the cage from the top deck of the boat, we could see the sharks approaching, striking the bait (or not), and sometimes breaching out of the water.  It was a hell of a show, absolutely unforgettable.

They fed us some soup and sandwiches back in town upon our return, and we had an additional treat on the way home.  Our driver asked us whether we had seen any whales, which we had not.  So he said that he knew a good vantage point on the way home from which we might be able to spot some, and were we interested in stopping to do that?  We were. That was a singularly unnecessary question, as you can imagine, and he made good in a big way: about 20 minutes into the long drive back to Cape Town, he stopped at a vantage point called De Kelders, at a low promontory overlooking a rocky beach.  And sure enough, not 150' offshore were two right whales, a mother and calf.  We had had the foresight to bring our binoculars with us, so we got an outstanding view.  Mom was huge, a good 40' long, and the baby maybe a third of that.  (Or to put it in perspective, the baby was nearly as large as the largest Great White that we saw.). We watched them for ten minutes or so before heading home.

Our journey back was interrupted by a big wildfire in the grass fields adjacent to the road; between the thick smoke and the emergency vehicles, it was not your typical Beltway traffic jam but it had the same effect.

So all in all we're still tripping on the experience.  Tonight: dinner at a Malaysian restaurant.  Tomorrow: penguins and the Cape of Good Hope!


Sept 15: Penguin Lust and Other Animal Tales

Long day today, it being our last full day in Cape Town.  We hired a driver/guide for the full day to take us around the peninsula on which Cape Town sits; the famous Cape of Good Hope is at the far southern end.

Our driver was Yaseen, same guy as two days ago, and he suggested an agenda that hit everything we were interested in, and then some.  This included some very scenic arty beach towns, rather like Laguna Beach or La Jolla albeit with striking mountains ringing them.  The weather was beautiful today, sunny and in the 70's, so the views were gorgeous.

Our first stop, though, was the famous Boulder penguin colony.  These are formally called African penguins, and they live in a small area on the bay side of the cape called The Boulders for the large, um, boulders that pepper the surf very close to shore.  They live among the boulders and in the woodsy area on the low escarpment that is the mainland.  They look like scale models of Antarctic Emperor penguins, about 16" tall, and they used to be called Jackass Penguins for the sound they make, which (bizarrely) sounds exactly like a little braying donkey.

This gets especially weird when you walk along the fenced-in wooded path above the surf, because they not only come waddling along the path, but they also build nests in the bushes where you can hear (but not see) them making baby penguins.  So you stroll along this path, and every now and then one of these guys walks in front of you and burrows adorably into the bushes, and a little further along the path you hear "HEE HAW HEE HAW heehawheehawheehawHEEEEEEeeeeeee....."  Then one of them waddles back onto the path smoking a little penguin cigarette.

Our guide advised us to avoid the visitor center, observing that (a) it costs money, and (b) is so crowded with tourists that you'd have to elbow people out of the way to see the penguins.  He pointed us instead to a lesser-known path where, he claimed, we would get much closer to them, and for free at that.  This proved to be entirely correct.  As we walked along the path practically by ourselves we were nearly stepping on the things, and we could look back across the beach at the wooden stairway and landing that emerges from the visitor center, crammed with tourists like the black hole of Calcutta.

It was getting on towards lunchtime when we left the penguins and we stared to head towards the Cape of Good Hope, which I shall henceforth call CGH because I'm tired of typing it.  Yaseen had said earlier that we *could* stop at a restaurant for lunch, but that he considered it a waste of time since we could buy deli sandwiches in one of the beach towns and he would take us to an out of the way place with a great view that no tourists knew about.  This, again, proved to be a spectacularly good idea, as the place in question proved to be a nearly deserted but spectacular beach that on this particular day happened to be populated by a small herd of bonteboks, which look rather like okapis. And indeed, it was on the way to this beach that we first encountered a few of them right by the side of the road, in the company of a pair of ostriches. This was a serious thrill: the bonteboks are beautiful, and the ostriches came within about 8' of the car.  They pretty much ignored us as we stopped the car and got out to walk among them.  I emphasize that this was not within the confines of a game reserve; they were just kind of there, wandering around doing their ostrich thing.  I got some serious up close and personal pictures of them with the surf in the background.

The terrain leading to the beach is sort of a scrub desert.  It is very flat until you hit the mountains, and there are no trees at all.  It's just an expanse of rocky dirt and low bushes, liberally sprinkled with a wide assortment of wildflowers.  It's seemingly stark and lush at the same time, and I really can't think of another area that looks quite like it.

After lunch we headed to CGH for the obligatory pictures of us behind the sign.  We first stopped for a little while at a nearby beach and got in some very satisfying seashell hunting before braving the many tourists who also want their picture taken behind the sign as well.  The view from there, needless to say, is striking, the cape itself being a high promontory and the surf spectacularly rough.  The winds are normally very fierce there -- the ruin of many a ship, as you know -- but today was unusually calm.

The rest of the trip back to town was a series of grand vistas and more arty beach towns, the latter very scenic and enjoyable to look at but in the end not vastly different from what you might find at home or in parts of Europe.  Still, the combination was memorable -- the beach towns nestled among the cliffs -- and certainly cemented our understanding that Cape Town's main attraction is its natural beauty, and that you really have to get out of the city proper to appreciate it.

We leave for Johannesburg late tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon to hook up with our safari group; we depart as a group (15 people) early Monday morning for Botswana, which is really the beginning of the main event.  Still, we want to squeeze a little more out of Cape Town: we are touring Robben Island (Mandela's prison) tomorrow morning, and will try to shoehorn in a visit to the top of Table Mountain (the mesa overlooking the town) before heading to the airport.

I'll try and send out a final dispatch from Jo'burg tomorrow night; once we leave for Botswana, we'll be pretty much off the grid.


Sept 16: High Speed Tourism

I forgot to mention that among yesterday's Animal Extravaganza we should add baboons and hyraxes. The latter are cat-sized groundhog-like things that resemble fat tailless squirrels.  Weird true fact: their closest relatives are elephants.  I have no idea why, but it probably makes for awkward family reunions ("Oh, great, the elephants are coming for Thanksgiving again.  Last year all the food was gone in three seconds and Uncle Mort got squished.").

At one of the beaches we visited there was a baboon sitting on top of some probably regretful person's car (nails on paint job!), eating some fruit.  It was a male baboon, definitely a male baboon: we could see that he was glad to see us.  Later in the day, on the return trip home, we encountered an entire family of them, including three ridiculously cute young ones, frolicking in a tree right next to the road.  We pulled over to watch them but did not get out of the car, which would have been a really bad idea.  They're enormous fun to watch but those guys can be seriously dangerous, especially with young ones around.  Indeed, many of the beaches and tourist areas now employ "baboon monitors" (I am not making this up) whose sole responsibilities is to spot baboons and shoo them away.  We saw one of these in action at the beach. You definitely want to have this job on your résumé.

Last night we did some tchotchke shopping at the waterfront, during which I learned whilst Rahm-shopping that the local term for a onesie is a "rumpie".  We had a good dinner at one of the jillion restaurants, then went on the Ferris wheel overlooking the waterfront for a fun nighttime view.  (We have also been on the big Ferris wheel in Vienna that featured prominently in The Third Man; maybe in our retirement we will tour the Ferris wheels of the world.)

Today was our last day in Cape Town -- I am typing this from the airport -- and so we packed in the two major sights that we had thus far missed: Robben Island (Mandela's prison for 17 years), and the cable car up Table Mountain to get a panoramic view from 3500' up.  Both were more than worthwhile.  We took a 30-minute ferry to Robben Island and were given a tour of the grounds and cells, including the very one where Mandela was held.  Most interestingly, the tour was conducted by a former political prisoner who was held there for five years; needless to say, he had quite the tale to tell.

Alice remarked that this was now the third island prison we had visited together, the other two being Alcatraz and the Chateau d'If (off the coast of Marseilles).  So maybe along with our Ferris wheel tour we will have a prison island tour as well.  Elba would probably be cool but we can probably pass on Devil's Island.

The cable car ride up Table Mountain was kind of cool not only for the view itself, but for the fact that the cabin very slowly rotates as you ascend and descend, so everybody on board gets to see both upward and downward during the trip.  The cabin completes one rotation during the ~5 minute ride.  (We have seen this once before, in Palm Desert CA.)

Our flight to Johannesburg boards in about 15 minutes, and we leave early tomorrow morning for Botswana.  In other words, this will be my final dispatch until near the very end of the email access, nada.  So everyone stay well and happy till our return!


Sept 19:  Accumulated Awesomeness

It is Wednesday Sept 19, a hair under 48 hours since I banged out my "High Speed Tourism" dispatch from the Cape Town airport, though you are probably not reading it until much later, when I may have the opportunity to send it from our hotel in Zimbabwe -- as opposed to our current and likely near future rustic-but-comfortable lodgings, here in Botswana.

We are currently in our own little cabin, which has a bathroom and shower with hot water; electricity; four walls made out of screens, where canvasses serve as both walls and window shades; a desk and some shelving; a bed with mosquito netting; and not much else.  It is the Kwalape Safari Lodge, a few miles outside the entrance to Chobe National Park in Botswana.  We got here by flying from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), where we met up with our tour guide -- a surpassingly cheerful 33 year Zimbabwean named Tenashe Nyandoro -- and driving 2 hours across the border to Botswana with the rest of our 15 person group.  Vic Falls airport is small and seedy, with a suitably Third World feel to it, but we made it out to the arrivals area without actually having to bribe anybody, as our visas seem actually to have worked.

This is probably a good time to introduce a couple of personalities.

The tour leader, Tenashe ("Call me Nash") seems like a real sweetheart who (a) knows pretty much everything, and (b) is willing to do just about anything to keep people happy and keep things rolling smoothly along.  He speaks six languages, four of which you have never heard of.  (The two that you have heard of are English and Zulu.). His English has that typical African accent that has an almost Trinidadian cadence to it, but is idiomatically perfect, and so it is slightly jarring to hear him expostulate phrases like "Awesome", or "Ciao!")

There our 15 people in our group including ourselves, and that is a good number: small and intimate enough that you don't feel like you're on some massive bus tour, and large enough that if there is someone you don't get along with, you can stay out of each other's way.  (I should emphasize that the latter has not happened.) I think that at 59, I am one of the youngest people in the group.  Most seem to be of retirement age in their mid 60's to early 70's.  One very delightful lady, Olga, is 80 but seems to have little problem keeping up with everyone else.  She has a very hard-to-place accent that turns out to come from having been born to pre-Bolshevik Russian parents in (then) Dutch-speaking Bandung, Indonesia.  She was flabbergasted to learn that I (a) speak Dutch and (b) have actually *been* to Bandung, Indonesia.

Anyway, the group does not "feel" old; I don't know that we would be close friends with more than a few of them outside this setting, but everyone is energetic, intelligent, and well traveled, and despite their being older than most of our friends we fit in pretty well.

Our initial taste of wildlife here came about five minutes after leaving the airport when we encountered some giraffes and baboons just off the road.  Of course everyone got all excited and Tenashe was suitably indulgent, knowing perfectly well that we ain't seen nothin’ yet.

Chobe has utterly blown us away in the past two days.  We have been extraordinarily lucky in our wildlife sightings, to the point that even the drivers and guides are talking about it among themselves.  To give you an idea, in the three three-hour game drives that we have had so far we have seen:

- A pride of lions lazing and nuzzling another by the side of the road (the guides tell us that they can go for a week without seeing a lion at all, and sightings are usually at a distance)

- A leopard being treed by a lion (there are only two leopards known to live in this part of the park, which is the size of Massachussets);

- A lion feeding on a freshly-killed baby elephant, and then having some of the meat stolen by a jackal;

- Literal herds (dozens at a time) of elephants, impalas, and Cape buffalo;

- A family of hippos;

- Many troops of baboons;

- Lone aged buffalo and antelopes that have left their herds;

- A couple of crocodiles...

...and more, along with a healthy assortment of exotic birds.  The experience is one of total sensory immersion: think of being *inside* a really, really good 3D panoramic IMAX movie produced by National Geographic, only with smells and breezes included.  Our vantage point is superb: our group of 15 is divided among two specialty 4 wheel drive vehicles that are essentially flatbed trucks with seats installed on the bed, with side rails and a canvas canopy.  There are three rows of seats, each of which can seat three people and each of which is about 6" higher than the row in front, like stadium seating.  The result is that you have a fairly unobstructed panoramic view regardless of where you sit.  Each vehicle is driven by a driver/guide who is basically a naturalist with 5,000,000/20 vision, meaning that he can spot animals from about 2000 yards away that you might not see if you were standing in front of them.  Quite impressive, actually; when he makes a sighting we trundle over the rutted, sandy terrain to get as close a look as possible, shutters clicking frantically.

I should say more about the terrain.  It is possible that you have some kind of Tarzan-esque mental picture of the Botswana landscape.  There would be a small amount of truth to that in, say, February in the rainy season -- though there are very few palm trees, but rather acacia and ironwood instead -- but we are at the tail end of the dry season now and the land is utterly blasted.  The ground is mostly sand and burnt grass, the air very slightly hazy with suspended dust, the trees leafless and burnt as though there had been some continent-wide forest fire.  The ground everywhere is littered with broken trees and branches that have been ripped up by the elephants.  It looks like some kind of forbidding post-nuclear-holocaust wasteland, whose only green is in a very narrow strip along the banks of the Chobe river.

This is all sounds very uninviting, and is indeed very hot and dusty, but that makes it the ideal time and circumstances to see the animals, of which (as I have made clear) there are vast numbers.  With no vegetation there are few hiding places, and with few sources of water there are limited numbers of places where the wildlife will tend to congregate.  So you can come in January or February and see beautiful lush terrain (and it is amazing to me that it all grows back)... but you won't see any animals. August/September is the time to be here.

After the game drive this morning we had a late afternoon boat ride that ran till sunset.  That was a glorious experience, putt-putting over the water next to herds of elephants and hippos and the occasional crocodile.  Upon our return, at the lodge after dinner, we were treated to a display of what Alice and I, in the course of our travels, normally refer to contemptuously as Colorful Native Dances.  But this dance troupe forced us to drop the cynicism: they are some kind of national champion group, supposedly, and were very, very impressive.  They took it seriously, were deeply into what they were doing, and their skill and professionalism showed.  We were impressed.

(Speaking of shows, I should mention that I sang for my supper last night.  The skies here are stunning, of course, with the Milky Way bisecting the sky through the zenith at this time of year. As we were introducing ourselves to each other my NASA and astronomy background of course emerged, so I gave a lecture followed by a looking-up-at-the-stars guided tour to the assembled company.  Big hit.)

What it all comes down to is that we have been so overwhelmed by everything we have seen and experienced in the past few days that I can truthfully say that if for some reason we had to go home right now we would still feel that we had gotten our money's worth.  This trip is shaping up as the trip by which all of our future vacations are likely to be judged, and it is hard to see how the days to come can measure up to these last few.

All for now...more tomorrow after we fly via light plane to the Okavango Delta, a few hundred miles southwest of here.


Sept 20:  Okavango Delta (Botswana)

Ahem.  Readers with sensitive dispositions, plus my mother, please avert your eyes from the next sentence, which contains adult language.


We had an encounter about 3 hours ago that makes the last couple of sentences of my last email seem like a bad joke, and I am grateful to even be here to say so.  This trip is supposed to be exciting, but one tends to forget, in our cosseted lives, that that very occasionally translates into "dangerous".  And so it is with a profound sense of having just been given one big, fat reality check that I report with absolutely no exaggeration whatsoever that we just came very, very close to getting killed, in the actually-dead, not-kidding-at-all sense of the word.

Let me make clear immediately that we and everyone else are OK.  Let me also make clear that, but for our very quick-witted driver, a lanky gent named Gally, we would have been anything but.

Briefly: our vehicle was suddenly and very unexpectedly charged by a herd of 8 very angry elephants, four coming straight at us and four from the left side of the vehicle, and we had a harrowing and not at all humorous narrow escape.  Details:

We arrived at the unpaved Okavango airstrip in two light planes at about 9 AM today, and had been driving all day through the area, which is rather different from Chobe.  It is a sea of burnt grass and dried sandy lake beds, crisscrossed by streams that we occasionally forded in our vehicles.  There are elephants absolutely everywhere -- it got to the point of us making jokes about them being underfoot -- along with huge herds (hundreds) of Cape buffalo.  At about 4 PM, a couple of miles from camp, we were driving alongside a shallow stream where a whole family of elephants was bathing and drinking; the family included one very young one being protected by his very large mother.  We were close to them, maybe only 100' or so, which the mother apparently decided was way too close.  She, and then the whole herd, turned and started coming towards us.  We were all very thrilled for a few seconds before we realized what was happening:  "Look!  They're coming towards us!  Wow, they're running!  HEY..." And then the elephantine shit hit the fan, and we were being attacked.  Their strategy is to ram the vehicle and try to overturn it, and if that happens the prognosis is not good, not good at all. They were screaming and trumpeting and trying to surround us, and got within an arm’s length or two.  Our driver gunned the motor, bulled the young one aside -- he was coming at us head on -- and threaded the needle between the young one and an adjacent adult.  He swerved left to avoid another adult, then cut right... and the herd turned and chased us, still trumpeting.  Even as our driver put the pedal to the metal they chased us for maybe 100 yards -- they were about as fast as we were -- before finally giving up. The mother was the last to break off the chase, and by that time I had recovered some microscopic presence of mind and was clicking the shutter randomly out the back.  I have been able to salvage one extremely blurred photo of an enraged female elephant chasing us.

Once we reached safety the driver stopped the car and, in some weird catharsis, we all broke out in hysterical laughter as though this was the most fun we had ever had.  In truth, our hearts were all pounding and we had all just come within two seconds of getting killed, and rather nastily at that.

When we calmed down I related to our leader Tenashe one of my favorite old Far Side cartoons, in which a guy has been cornered in an alley by a suspicious looking elephant, standing on two legs in typical Far Side fashion, and wearing a trench coat and a pulled-down fedora.  The elephant is saying, "Remember me, Mr. Johnson?  Kenya, 1947?  When you try to kill an elephant, Mr. Johnson, be sure to finish the job."

Weirdly, that cartoon turned out to approximate the actual situation.  Over dinner at the lodge that evening, the manager explained that up until two years ago this lodge -- now an ecotourism venue -- was a hunting lodge, and as a consequence the elephants in the immediate area are a lot more skittish and aggressive then most elephants in Botswana.

Elephants are a real problem in Botswana.  The country is the size of Texas with a population of only 2 million... and 100,000 elephants.  They are protected but incredibly destructive, as we saw ourselves; the sea of uprooted and shattered trees throughout the park looks like the aftermath of an endless series of tornados.  But trying to reduce their numbers through controlled hunting raises an uproar and also threatens to do as much harm as good since elephants have a very tight and complex family structure, and hunting them tends to eliminate the "wrong" members of the family -- you want to kill the young ones if you are trying to affect the population dynamics -- and disrupt the social structure.  This is turn leads to unintended consequences such as, um, elephants attempting to kill tourists, which everyone agrees is bad for business and even worse for the tourists that get killed.

That's my elephant lecture.  Thing is, there is a lot that happened through the rest of the day, all of which seems anticlimactic in retrospect.  We saw zebras for the first time, as well as a rare species called the roan antelope and an even rarer pack of painted wolves, which I had never even heard of.  (They are also known as wild dogs.) We saw a number of giraffes, and had a bit of an adventure when our vehicle had a flat tire.  The latter would not have been much of a big deal except for the fact that after the driver and guide changed the tire, it developed that the spare was partially flat as well.  And that *was* a problem because we were pretty much in the middle of Botswanian nowhere.  So they ordered us out of the vehicle and gave us lunch whilst they rather resourcefully, using a bunch of logs as a second jack, switched tires around to move the soft one to the front of the vehicle where less weight was concentrated.  That worked, and everything went smoothly after that if you ignore the part about almost getting killed by elephants.

So we made it to the lodge alive, if a bit later and with more grey hairs than planned.  This being our first day in Okavango, this is a new lodge for us, called Khwai Discover.  It is quite beautiful, all open space and individual canvas-walled cabins with high cathedral roofs...  very big well-appointed tents, essentially, with electricity and nice bathrooms albeit without air conditioning.  (Since the nights are cool that's not much of an issue.) The place differs from Kwalape Lodge in Chobe in one very important respect, however: the latter was surrounded by an electric fence and this place is in the middle of the jungle surrounded by, well, nothing.  The local animals wander through the camp at night and we are under very strict instructions not to leave our cabins without staff escort.  We were also given a lesson in what the various animals sound like at night, and were assured that they never attempt to actually enter the cabins.  Indeed, as I am typing this I can hear an elephant grunting and tearing up branches just outside our cabin; it is pitch black outside so I cannot actually see him (or her).

Hmmm..."her".  Maybe Mama Elephant, come back to finish the job.  Better wrap this up now... more tomorrow, or when I get a chance.


Sept 21:  Okavango Delta II

We actually had something resembling a calm morning, which included a game drive in which we did not witness a buffalo stampede nor have to dodge angry elephants.  We did however encounter the herd that attacked us yesterday, and although it may not be true that elephants never forget, these guys certainly hadn't forgotten.  We were heading along a narrow path towards a lake shore to get a closer look at a group of grazing zebras, when the elephant herd from yesterday became visible in the bushes next to the road.  More to the point, we became visible to them.  They all turned to face us and took a step towards the road, and let me tell you, I have now learned that it is possible for an elephant to glare.  Our driver set the world record for fast u-turns in a four wheel drive on a narrow wooded path, and we hightailed it the hell out of there.  We sped back down the path from whence we came, looking over our shoulders to see if the elephants were chasing us.  (And I must say, THAT is a sentence I never thought I would write.) They weren't.

The rest of the drive was enjoyable and largely uneventful; we concentrated a lot on the birds, which are many and highly varied, some with spectacular colors.  The most beautiful of these is the lilac breasted roller, whose picture I suggest you Google.  We also came across a lake that had a dozen hippos swimming in it.

During our picnic tea break (it's all very British, you know) I had an interesting conversation with the mysterious guy named Onks in the front seat next to the driver.  (Our tour lead Tenashe has been sitting in the back with us for this leg of the trip.). He hasn't been saying much, and it turns out that he is not part of the tour organization, but rather a wildlife management representative from the local community, which has been more or less deputized by the national government to maintain the nature reserve.  He is there both to ensure that proper protocol is followed by the tour groups and also to report back an informal census of whatever endangered species we happen to encounter.

That is probably a good segue into a ramble about the Botswana government.  Botswana, unlike all of the rest of Africa, has a fairly placid history and a democratic and surprisingly competent government.  It was a British protectorate for a century or two but offered little economic return because most of the country is the Kalahari desert.  In the mid-20th century one of the powerful tribal chiefs committed a major cultural no-no by marrying a British woman, in the wake of which faux pas he exiled himself to London, attended university, and became active in British administration of the territory. By the early 1960's the British had had about enough of the place and so they dispatched him back to his native land with instructions to form some political parties and put a democratic government in place.  This he did, and was unsurprisingly elected president.

With a democratic government in place and few economic spoils flowing to the UK, the British finally cut the cord and granted Botswana independence on September 30, 1966.  One year later diamonds were discovered, leading to the greatest collective facepalm in the history of British colonialism.  (Said Queen Elizabeth at the time: "D'oh!")

Today diamonds are Botswana's principal source of income, followed by tourism and then cattle.  The diamond trade is carefully regulated -- no conflict diamonds here -- with the government granting DeBeers a monopoly license in return for a 50% share of the revenue.  Unlike just about everywhere else, most of that revenue is plowed reasonably wisely back into the economy (infrastructure, education, real estate development, ecotourism), the result being a stable government and, very importantly, a significant emerging middle class.  They have a very long way to go but they seem to be on the right track.

There are about six national parties but as a result of the opposition vote being continuously split, the ruling party has won all the presidential elections since 1966.  (One of the opposition parties came very close to winning in 1994 but blew it when last minute factional infighting caused them to bifurcate into two parties, thereby once again splitting the vote.). The current president is the son of the founder, so they may yet screw things up by letting the ruling party ossify and become dynastic.  But if they manage to inject a little more political diversity into the process, they could really do very well.  Certainly the contrast with Zimbabwe, right next door, is striking.

By the way, I am typing this at about 1 PM from our cabin, on our midday break.  Our safari days usually follow a schedule like this:

> Wake up call at 5:30 or 6:00 AM, with breakfast a half hour later.  (The food has been wonderful.)  We are in the vehicle and into the bush before 7:00 AM before the day gets hot and while the animals are likely to be out and about rather than hiding from the midday sun.

> Tea/water/soft drink and cookie break at some flat, safe spot with shade at about 9:30 AM.

> Back at camp at 10:30 or 10:45 for an early lunch at 11:00 AM.  We all hang around and chat till about noon, then repair back to our cabins for a few hours of down time to avoid the midday heat, which is pretty intense.

> Reconvene at about 3:00, typically for some kind of lecture or demonstration: local history, basket weaving (really), or whatever, generally of about 30 minutes’ duration.

> Afternoon safari game drive or other activity (e.g., yesterday's boat trip) starting at about 3:30.  If a game drive, the animals tends to be stirring again and we will drive around hunting for them until sunset at about 6:30.  We are generally back in the camp around 7:00, which is when dinner is served.  If there is no planned after-dinner activity (e.g., the dances of a few nights ago, or my own impromptu astronomy evening) then we are generally back in the cabin around 9:00.  Alice uses the time before bed to read, while I use it to catch up on this blog (plus a catalog of animal sightings that I have been keeping) on our iPad; log and back up my camera memory cards; and clean the day's accumulated dust -- of which there is a fair amount -- off my camera lenses.  We're in bed around 10:30, lying in pitch blackness broken only by a little moonlight.

We lie in bed and fall asleep listening to the animal sounds outside.  Or rather I listen to them; Alice removes her hearing aids before bed and so cannot hear the animals unless they start playing in a Who concert.  Oh well...can't have everything.


We saw a couple of new animals on the afternoon drive -- water bucks and reed bucks -- as well as a couple of new species of birds, but have become jaded remarkably quickly to herds of impalas, hippos, and all those other guys.  So no drama this afternoon, which just goes to show you how high our standards of "drama" have become in a ridiculously short time.  (An aside about impalas: they are all over the place, frequently in herds of dozens.  Their markings include a sort of M-shaped blaze on their butts; for this reason, combined with their ubiquity and popularity as food both among big cats and humans, they are somewhat scornfully referred to as "McDonalds" by the locals.)

The terrain was particularly rough this afternoon, and that is really saying something.  Much of the time we drive on a vague suggestion of a path, usually in the form of a worn track through the brush or a sandy rut.  Today we didn't even have that...we basically bulldozed straight through the brush, dodging thorny branches along the way.  These vehicles (built by Land Rover) are tough, more humvee than passenger carrier, and -- there being no road and all -- the ride is very rough and bouncy.  It is only the fact that we are usually moving at low speed (except when being pursued by enraged elephants) that keeps it from being altogether bone-rattling.  It is pretty much impossible to take pictures while we are moving, but this is not really a problem: the driver stops whenever he sees something that might interest us, and will also stop whenever we ask him to. He'll also maneuver a few feet here and there through the brush to get into optimum viewing position.

We got back to camp at about 6:45 PM as usual and started upon our evening routine of showering before a scheduled 7:30 dinner.  It was late twilight and thus per protocol we were being escorted to our cabin; we are not allowed to be outside on our own after dusk.  We made it about halfway there before being blocked by....a pair of elephants.  The guide shooed us back about 20 feet and attempted to drive them off, essentially by yelling at them.  You might not expect this to work, and you'd be right.  So he walked us back to the main lodge (just 150' or so away) and fetched a flashlight, hoping that he could somehow drive them off with that.  No dice again.

So we were stuck; this is genuine wilderness and there was no alternate path to our room.  You may perhaps have had the experience of driving on a farm road when your way was blocked by an intransigent cow, in which case you may honk your horn and hope for the best but must otherwise accept that there is nothing to do but wait it out.  This situation was pretty much the same as that, with the notable exceptions that a cow does not weight 6,000 lbs and when discomfited will not charge at you baring tusks the size of Olga Korbut.  In the end there was to be no pre-dinner shower for us; we waited in the main lodge then enjoyed a delightful outdoor dinner, and by the time it was time to go back to our cabin the elephants had vacated.

Dinner was a wonderful experience in itself.  I do not think that I have related just how intimate the lodging is.  There are only about eight staff members and about a half dozen cabins.  Our group of 15 was split before arrival and eight of them are in a separate camp, about a half hour away.  So there are only seven of us from our group staying here, and we are the only guests.  For this evening's meal, the staff set up a long table for us outside the lodge, lit with LED "candles" in mason jars.  The sky was clear and full of stars, and the background sound was elephants, hyenas, and a ubiquitous tickety-ticking made by thousands of some local species of frog -- a wonderful immersive musical sound that more than anything resembles the hollow clicking of a bamboo wind chime. The food was excellent, the whole evening sublime... alfresco dining under African stars, serenaded by wildlife.

Tomorrow: a dugout canoe ride in the delta.  All for now.


Sept 22: First Pole, Then Dig (Okavango III)

Our dugout canoe outing began with a ~2 hour drive to get to the river, during which time we saw a couple of animals that we had not seen before: a wildebeest and a hyena.  The latter was tough to find: it was one of those cases where the guide saw it from a mile away, through the bushes, and we had to race bouncing over the scrubby terrain to get to where we could get a better look at it.  There were two, actually, and they bolted as we approached.  Couldn't get a photo but we got a pretty good look at them as they darted through the underbrush.  We already knew that there were some in the area: we can hear them clearly at night, a sort of whooping sound.

We also had a sort of poignant, nature-red-in-fang-and-claw moment en route, when we passed a herd of elephants that included a baby missing its trunk and tail.  These were likely lost in an unsuccessful attack from a lion or other predator, but the ultimate outcome for the young elephant is probably the same.  As Tenashe, our tour lead, put it, "He's part of the food chain now." Without a trunk it is extremely difficult to eat; instead of being killed by a lion, he will likely starve to the point that he becomes easy prey.  This ain't the San Diego Zoo.

The dugout canoe trip itself was pretty low key, in truth not much different from any of our kayak trips at home.  The craft are called "makoras", and if you saw one you would immediately say, "Yep, that's a canoe, all right." The main difference is that they are slightly wider than a conventional canoe, with a flat bottom.  Rather than rowed, they are poled à la Venetian gondolas.

The makoras are traditionally carved out of a trunk of ebony, but due to deforestation and general conservation concerns they are now carved from the sacred Fiberglas tree.  However, they are *painted* to look like ebony wood.  Alice and I sat on little seats in the bottom whilst a guide poled us through the reeds around a shallow swampy river (the Khwai River, and yes there is a bridge over it, but it's not that river or bridge).  He talked and answered questions about the various plants and natural history of the river.  The plant life itself was not terribly exotic, and the most interesting creature we saw was called the bell frog, a cute little guy about 1 1/2" long, light green in color with thin brown stripes on its back.  It looked like a teaspoonful of mint chocolate chip ice cream.  One joined us in the boat.

The water was shallow (about 3'), refreshingly cool, and extremely clear; the Khwai and Okavango rivers carry a lot of sand and have sandy bottoms, which filter their water very effectively.

The return trip back to camp was broken in the middle by a particularly elegant alfresco lunch break: the camp kitchen staff had come to meet us halfway in a clearing by the river and set up tables and a little buffet station in a grove of mopane trees next to the river bank.  (The mopane -- pronounced mo-ponnie, not mo-pain -- is a very common tall tree here; you can Google a picture of it.)  It was quite a nice surprise, accented by a rare cool breeze in one of the few somewhat green settings in the area.

Our next surprise was not so nice: after lunch, about two miles from camp, the Land Rover got bogged down in the sand.  (I was surprised that it hadn't happened before now.) It took about 20 minutes to get out, an operation that required everyone to exit the vehicle and mill around in the broiling sun while the guides did all the usual stuff that one does when stuck in deep snow (they carry a shovel for this sort of thing).  After a few rounds of unsuccessful shoveling, the driver got desperate and asked all the men to push.  (For their part, the women stood around, took pictures of us, and laughed.)  That worked.  I held my hand up to high-five Gally the driver and he looked at me blankly; I explained it to him and taught him to do it, so you may now thank me for introducing the high-five to Botswana.

The whole pushing thing was hard, sweaty, and very, very dusty work, so when we got back to camp I took a mid afternoon shower before we headed out again on our afternoon game drive.  Fortunately there were no elephants blocking the path to our cabin this time.

The afternoon drive offered one new species of animal for us -- vervet monkeys -- but was otherwise less dramatic than some of our others.  We had a gotten a somewhat later start than usual (about 4:30 PM) and so got back after sunset.  That was kind of spooky cool in a "lions and tigers and bears" sort of way, bouncing through the brush in the dark with the headlights on.  We saw a herd of impala in the headlights who went bounding away into the darkness as we approached.

Dinner was alfresco again, this time with no tables; rather, the chairs were arranged in a semicircle around a campfire, and we ate some excellent traditional foods -- pounded beef and pap (polenta) -- with our plates in our laps.  The campfire practically begged for toasted marshmallows, and amazingly, that's what we got for dessert.  (I kinda doubt that that is an African tradition but hey, you go with the flow.) Our 80 year old travelmate Olga, whom I mentioned earlier, astounded the assembled company by announcing that despite having spent most of her life in the US, she had never toasted marshmallows and didn't know how.  Alice showed her, thus completing her education.

After dinner, the staff sang to us, quite amazingly well.  Does EVERYONE in Africa know how to sing? (I voiced this rhetorical question and one of the kitchen staff said simply, "Yes.") The numbers were beautiful and variously haunting and stirring, and the experience -- the campfire, the stars, the music, the whole setting -- magical.  I can't even bring myself to be snarky about was great.

We will bid our goodbyes to Botswana tomorrow morning, rising early to catch a series of light plane flights and Land Rover drives to get our (presumably remote) camp in Zambia.  It's been a helluva stay here....looking forward to see what Zambia has to offer.


Sept 24: Zambia

Sunday the 23rd was a travel day as we made our way from Middle of Nowhere, Botswana to Middle of Nowhere, Zambia.  But as we all know, life is the journey, not the destination, especially if your destination is Detroit.  And so, characteristically, the trip from Botswana to Zambia was an adventure in itself.  The first leg was a 2-hour bush drive to the airstrip where we first arrived.  Then we boarded a light plane to Kasane airport (an hour by air), which was our initial jumping off point in Botswana a few days ago; they had wifi there so I managed to send the first batch of accumulated journal emails that you have already read.

From Kasane we took a van to the Zambian border, which is the Kazulunga ferry crossing at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.  (Botswana, Zambia, and Namibia all meet there.)  And quite a scene the ferry crossing was.  There are only three boat launches, one for our little pontoon boat (that itself took two trips to get all 15 of us and our luggage across), and two larger barges that could each take two cargo trucks, which are the main event there.

The cargo trucks are huge, basically double-length flatbed trucks, each section the length of a conventional axles in total, including the cab.  This cargo route -- up from South Africa into Botswana and Zambia, and continuing north all the way up into Kenya and the rest of eastern Africa -- is one of the principal arteries for goods.  It is also -- and here's where it gets ugly -- one of the principal arteries for HIV transmission through the continent.  Remember I said that there were only two barge launches; that means that the crossing is a major choke point for the huge volume of truck traffic.  The trucks were backed up for the ferry for *miles* (fortunately in a dedicated traffic lane), and Nash informed us that waits of several days are not unusual.  So what you have is hundreds of truck drivers stranded for days at a time at a very small, decrepit ferry port with nothing to do... a problem that any number of prostitutes are willing to solve.

The area is consequently spectacularly seamy, with a smattering of local businesses (sundries, money exchanges, and "executive lodgings" (sic)), all in ramshackle cinder block structures at the river bank, all serving the truckers' various needs, and looking collectively like a giant retrovirus cauldron.

This is not exactly in keeping with vacation reportage, but now is a good spot for a digression about HIV around here.  It's a ferocious problem, with infection rates at the 50% level or even higher, thanks in part to those truckers and prostitutes spreading the disease along the cargo routes.  The various national governments are finally getting aggressive about tackling it, and there are posters and stickers everywhere encouraging the use of condoms and urging men to get circumcised and newborns to get tested.  We see free condom machines in many public places, e.g., the airports and the border crossing offices where you get your passport stamped.

Circumcision, though is a more controversial part of the approach (and you see some really in-your-face posters about it, showing pictures of half-peeled bananas and other, um, rough metaphors).  The problem is that the statistical evidence for circumcision as an HIV preventative is marginal, but the men who do get snipped consequently tend to believe quite incorrectly that they are now immune, and thus engage in risky behavior that worsens the problem instead of ameliorating it.

As soon as we crossed the river and stepped into Zambia we were besieged by vendors selling mostly carved wooden items: bracelets, bowls, and animals.  (Hippos and giraffes seem to be the big selling species.) Like street vendors throughout the Third World, they were predictably implacable, and though a few of our group bought a few items, we mostly holed up in the van that was waiting for us while Nash got our passports stamped, ignoring the dozen importuning vendors pressed up against the windows.   (As I am typing this description I am getting a mental image from Night of the Living Dead, which is actually pretty accurate except for everyone being alive.)

The van took us through the town of Livingston (as in "Dr. L, I presume?") to the airport.  The town reminded both Alice and me of Managua, Nicaragua: urban but still developing, with dusty streets lined with cinderblock and cement storefronts with hand painted signs, and helterskelter power lines crisscrossing the streets.  But surrounding this business core are the upper class suburbs, with ranch and two story houses with nice gardens; many would not look far out of place in an American suburb.

At the Livingstone airport we boarded another light plane for the flight into the interior.  (Brief aside about our various flights: we actually travel in two small planes at a time, a 14-seater and a 6-seater (including pilots) since counting Nash there are 16 of us.  When we are in the 6-seater I end up in the co-pilot's seat, though needless to say I am not allowed to touch the controls.) We landed on a dirt airstrip near the edge of the known universe, then got into the waiting Land Rovers for a 2-hour bush drive to our current location, Musanza bush camp in Kafue (pronouned ka-fway) National Park, the largest in Zambia.

The landscape in Kafue is significantly different from either Chobe or the Okavango delta.  There is a river running through it -- our camp is situated rather picturesquely on the banks -- and so there is far more greenery.  There are also somewhat fewer elephants to destroy the trees, so the land does not take on the forest fire/war zone look that we have seen elsewhere.  Adjacent to the green(ish) areas are huge plains, genuine savannah like you see in the movies. Endless fields of tall dry yellow grass stretch from horizon to horizon, dotted with acacia, ironwood, and checkerwood trees and roamed by herds of wildebeest, zebras, and impalas.  It is a magnificent sight, especially in the very early morning when everything has a golden cast.

But nature is all about balance, as we know, and what Kafue lacks in elephants it makes up in tsetse flies. Yes, tsetse flies, that crossword puzzle favorite (frequent clue: "half an African fly", answer TSE).  Bite like a bee sting, carrier of trypanosomiasis, known to us plain folks as sleeping sickness.  Fortunately, we are assured that there hasn't been a case of sleeping sickness in this area in 35 years, a fact that neither diminishes the number of flies nor their enthusiasm for trying to give it to you.

Just before we left on this trip I had bought several bottles of Cutter's insect repellent, which is 7% DEET.  The staff here assured me that the tsetses drink that stuff for cocktails with little tiny fly olives in it, and that we needed the real deal: 90% DEET.  We have one bottle of it that Alice bought, and some of our travel mates have it as well.  When you apply it your skin melts, and if you listen carefully you can actually hear yourself getting cancer.

But that was two hours in the future, once we reached camp: the immediate tsetse-related problem was the 2-hour drive from the airstrip to camp in our open-air Land Rover.  But our driver had the solution -- one that is used in all the vehicles around here: burning elephant dung.  Yes.  Some time in the past 30,000 years, necessity once again proved the mother of invention as some early homo sapiens -- one no doubt covered in tsetse fly bites -- discovered that the smoke from burning elephant dung kept the flies at bay. And so all of the vehicles dangle empty metal paint cans from the back, and as needed the driver stops the car, takes a few paces off the road to round up some elephant dung for the can, lights a match, and (as the English say) Bob's your uncle,

Now, despite the fact that "Burning Elephant Dung" sounds like the name of a rock band whose members never shower, there is some information about it that I should impart to you as part of my journalistic obligation.  So here is a digression about the virtues of elephant dung.

The first thing you need to know is that elephants have very inefficient digestive systems, and absorb only 30% of the nutrients from anything they eat.  This may be inconvenient for the elephants but is good news otherwise for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, it means that there are many nutrients that their droppings return to the soil; elephant dung makes excellent fertilizer, so be sure to ask for some at your local garden center.  For another thing (and Mother Nature doesn't care much about this, but I do), it means that their droppings don't have much of a smell. You know the phrase, "He acts like his shit doesn't stink"?  Well, for elephants it's true.

I am sure that by now you are asking, "What does elephant dung look like?" (You ARE wondering that, aren't you?)  And the answer is, that droppings look like bowling balls made out of dried mud and dirt, with bits of dried grass and plant stems sticking out here and there.  In other words, not terribly disgusting especially in light of the fact they have no very noticeable odor.  Fortunately.

And now of course, your next question is, "OK, fine, but what does burning elephant dung *smell* like when you're enveloped in a cloud of it from the can at the back of the Land Rover?" Ah, excellent question.... I am tempted to say "Now we're cooking!" As it happens, burning elephant dung smells like burning cattails, i.e. like the punks that one occasionally burns as an insect repellent.  It's a little incense-y, and at the risk of sounding like there's something seriously wrong with me -- I mean something *else* -- it's not unpleasant.  I believe that Yankee Candles once marketed it as "Dumbo Droppings" as part of their "Safari Smells" scented candle product line, but dropped it when sales unexpectedly fell well short of projections.

Anyway, we rolled into camp cocooned in a cloud of oxidizing pachyderm poop, and all was well.

That word "rolled" reminds me of another difference between Kafue and either Chobe or Otavango: rudimentary roads, of the packed dirt variety.  We don't always use them, mind you -- if the driver spots something interesting we'll go trundling straight off across the trackless savannah -- but when we are on them the ride is a great deal less spine-shattering than we have been experiencing for the past week. (Ironically, as we climbed aboard the Rover at the airstrip here, the driver warned us that the ride would be bumpy.  But after the past week, it felt like freshly paved interstate.)

Those basic roads mean that some of the camps in Kafue are relatively more accessible than they might be otherwise, and indeed one of them hosts a 5-day school camp called Treetops, where affluent parents in the capital (Lusaka) send their kids to witness mature firsthand, or get eaten by hippos, or both.  We have seen a couple of pickup trucks go by carrying a load of schoolchildren.

Our camp, Musanza, is in some ways the most rustic of the places we have stayed so far, though we are by no means roughing it here.  As I mentioned, it sits on the bank of a river (one teeming with hippos, by the way, who make a hell of a racket), in a scenic grove of checkerwood trees draped in liana vines. (Those are the vines that Tarzan swing on in the movies, so you know this is the real deal.) There is a common open-air lodge area where we socialize and take our meals (the food has been excellent everywhere, by the way), and the lodgings themselves consist of ten large tents, one of which of course is ours.

Our tent is pretty spacious about 20' x 15' with big screen windows that can be covered with Velcro'ed canvas flaps for privacy or darkness.  There is a desk, shelves, and two comfortable full size beds that would be perfectly in place in a decent hotel room, with the possible exception of the mosquito netting.  It has a few LED electric lights powered off a storage battery that is charged via solar panels during the day. And it has hot running water (also solar powered) in a big conventional bathroom that extends off the back of the tent, with a flush toilet, sink, and shower.

Well, maybe "conventional" is not quite the word I am looking for.  The bathroom is actually open-air, directly behind and sort of part of the tent, accessed through the rear flap.  It is screened off from the rest of the world via 6' high canvas panels that act as a wall, and so is perfectly private as long as you don't mind being watched by birds.  (There is no roof.  What part of "open air" didn't you understand?)  It feels rather exotic and romantic when having a nice hot shower outside in the middle of the jungle. When you're sitting on the toilet, not so much.  (And remember, we've got hippos in the river, making all sorts of noises maybe 50' from our tent.  You don't want to be sitting on a toilet in the jungle should some demented hippo suddenly decide that your tent is a long lost relative who owes him money.)

Our game drive this morning focused on the savannah areas.  The wildebeest, zebra, and impala herds tend to intermingle, and it was a gorgeous, thrilling sight to see them moving together across the dry grass prairie.  We broke for tea on a tall hummock that gave us a commanding 360 degree of the plain, watching the herds -- including young with their mothers -- along with the bird life, especially the yard-tall crested cranes, who look like a graceful cross between a heron and a peacock.

The plan for this evening's game drive is to stay out past sunset to see if we can spot any nocturnal species via spotlights.  If we see anything cool, I'll report on it next time.

Postscript: we found a cheetah on the night drive!  Very exciting: the guide spotted his glowing eyes reflected in the spotlight.  We got to within about 75' of her (it was a small female) and I managed to get some photos.

Sept 29: Zimbabwe

It appears that, due to Third World Internet Strangeness, most of my Zambia diary is gone for good with the exception of the Sept 24 entry.

We are in Zimbabwe now, which has been quite the experience in itself, it being an utterly corrupt and deeply impoverished place.  Every trip on the highway includes at least one or two fake roadblocks where people masquerading as cops (and who may be actual off duty cops) try to shake down our driver for money on the pretext of "broken tail lights" and other all-American harassment favorites.  So far, the driver and our tour lead have managed to talk them out of it every time by demanding that issue receipts and other paperwork, which obviously they are disinclined to do.

We've had some amazing animal sightings here -- enormous herds of elephants coming within about 20' of us -- but one of the real highlights has been a visit to a locals school, which I will report on later when time and energy permit.


Sept 29:  Four Days’ Worth of Journal in One Gigantic Email (Sept 25-28)

As I mentioned earlier, my journals from the last couple of days in Zambia seemed to have vanished into some kind of Internet Twilight Zone, leaving me a little too demoralized to try and reconstruct them in detail.  Nonetheless, a couple things are worth recalling in writing.

I already mentioned in my Sept 23-24 entry that our camp in Musanza, though nominally the most rustic of the aces we have stayed, was in a wonderful idyllic setting on a riverbank, surrounded by checkerwood mopane trees.  (The latter look somewhat like ironwood trees and were unfamiliar to us though they are common in these parts.) And contrary to our expectations, it proved to be our favorite place of all the camps we have stayed in.  The staff were charming and the cook a real ace; the food was wonderful.  And there was something extraordinary about being able to lounge around in folding "director's chairs" just outside our tent in the late afternoon before high tea, reading or watching the exotic birds in the trees and hanging vines around us, sometimes seeing hippos splash around in the Lufupa river fifty feet away, sometimes just hearing them.

Ah, yes, hearing them.  I had never previously thought of hippos as making noise, but in fact they make a very characteristic (and rather loud) sound that punctuated our days and nights and that we had never heard before.  It is a huge, deep laughing sound, as though someone had recorded a guffaw and played it back -- very loudly  -- at a slower speed, say (at the risk of dating myself) a 45 rpm record played back at 33 rpm.  The beasts splash around in the water, submerge for a minute or two, then surface and call out HOOOOO HAR HAR HAR.  (One wag in our tour group suggested that they go underwater to tell fart jokes, then surface to laugh at them.  If you ever get to hear this sound you will find that theory strangely plausible.)

We wanted very much to walk that fifty feet and sit on the river bank itself, but were instructed to keep a distance of at least 10' from the water, that being the striking range of the crocodiles who share the river with the hippos.  We did not need to be told this twice.

One of our afternoon activities at Musanza was a boat ride up the river for a few hours, as in Botswana with an outboard aluminum skiff that could hold about seven of us.  There was quite a lot of bird life (I have some seriously good bird photos), and as we motored up the river the boat driver took care to steer around the hippos.  They being pretty large targets you might think that an easy task, but since they spend a fair amount of time underwater it is harder (and more dangerous) than it looks.  Sometimes when he would see some bubbles up ahead he would simply steer us in a tight circle for a minute or so until the underwater crowd had moved on.  He did misjudge once, and a hippo splashed just under the surface about two feet to the left of the boat, causing quite the ripple (literally) and eliciting a not inappropriate scream from the woman who happened to be sitting at that point of the boat.

Hippos look pretty comical, and that laugh adds to the image, but they are seriously dangerous because of their predilection for overturning boats.  Among large animals they are close to the top of the list among cause of human deaths.  (That would be around here; there have been very few hippo-related deaths in our neighborhood at home.). They are also dangerous to each other, with a rigid social structure that includes a lot of the alpha-male, are-YOU-lookin'-at-ME? stuff.  On the river bank a mile or two upstream from our camp, we saw a seriously injured juvenile male hippo limping through the brush and into the water, sporting a nasty injury on his left rear flank probably arising from an encounter with the wrong adult male.

The boat trip included a stop at the Treetops school where affluent parents, mostly from Lusaka (the capital), send their kids for four or five days of living in the bush, seeing the animals, and so forth.  It's basically overnight camp with elephants. The kids had a larger ethnic diversity than we expected -- white, black, and Indian -- till the "affluent" part was explained to us: they are the children of the diplomats and other upper crust in Lusaka.  The school, with classroom and separately camp-style dorm buildings, was in a clearing near the riverbank, the setting dominated by an enormous baobab tree, which itself is worthy of some discussion.

If you studied French in high school or college then you probably read The Little Prince, by St. Exupéry, in which case you already have a mental picture of a baobab tree as a viny thing that drops roots from all its branches and thus spreads over a very wide area.  Well, erase it: that image is entirely wrong because St. Exupéry was confusing a baobab with a banyan.  A baobab is characterized by an exceptionally broad trunk and comparatively spindly branches; it looks like someone cut off all the branches from a very old tree and they have only been growing back for the past few years.  The trunks are of such great diameter that in bygone times poorer village residents would hollow them out and use the living tree as a dwelling; in some cases the village would use the space as a jail.  The particular baobab at Treetops could probably serve as a small maximum security prison: the tree was about 150' high and easily 25'-30' in diameter at the base.  (We have a photo of the two of us standing at the base; it's so huge that you have to look twice to see us.)

We departed Musanza (and Zambia) regretfully; it really had been an Edenic three days and we really clicked with the staff there (it probably helped that we were the only guests).  As seems to be the procedure at every place we have stayed, the last evening included a musical performance by the staff, a rollicking percussive display that had everyone on their feet.  The next morning, it was back in the Land Rovers for the two hour drive through the bush to the dirt airstrip, from when we flew in light planes back to Livingstone to drive into Zimbabwe.

I have already described the street-level corruption in Zimbabwe, and it seems that even this part of the country -- which is the tourism center and thus the focus of government efforts to ensure that everything is copacetic -- has a perceptible miasma of disorganization and unhappiness about it.  The economy here is a total ruin, thanks to Mugabe and his homicidal kleptocrats, and was rescued from sliding altogether into the abyss only about two years ago by junking their own currency altogether and switching to the US dollar.  It was one of those situations you read about where inflation had gotten so completely out of control that people needed backpacks stuffed with bills to buy a loaf of bread.  Those days, and those bills, are now happily gone, so there is at least some improvement happening.  The old notes are literally worthless except as souvenirs, and when you walk down the street in Victoria Falls you are accosted by young men offering to sell you a stack of Zimbabwean currency as souvenirs, bills with ridiculous denominations like "One Trillion".   (That is not a joke or an exaggeration: I actually saw notes of that denomination.)

Our planned lodging for our first stop in Zimbabwe was supposed to be another tented camp, but we were informed that our tour organizer (Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT, which I highly recommend) had gotten word that the last two groups of travelers that stayed there had gotten sick, so they wisely found alternative accommodations.  This proved to be a more conventional hotel/safari lodge, the Hwange Safari Lodge, that looked quite beautiful from the outside but which turned out to be more than a little seedy, sort of like an inner city Holiday Inn that has changed ownership too many times.  It did have a striking setting, overlooking a watering hole where the animals paraded by with regularity, but we had become used to the intimate atmosphere of the tented camps -- and the excellent food there -- and the more production line atmosphere of the place was definitely a come-down.

Hwange National Park is the largest game area in Zimbabwe -- several thousand square miles -- and, along with Victoria Falls a few hours away by car, the largest tourist attraction in the country.  As a practical matter this means that it has a somewhat more organized and slightly less rough feel to it than the other game areas we have been in: visitors are required to check in at a main gate, there are more discernible (albeit unpaved) roads, and vehicles are not allowed to leave those roads.  Even so, the games sightings are spectacular, most impressively the huge herds of elephants -- I counted 75 in the largest group we encountered -- that frequent the watering holes.

Our real find though, was a family of cheetahs, perched regally on top of a high termite mound as though posing for a TV commercial.  This was at the very end of the day, about 6:30pm as the sun was setting, and got everyone, including our driver, very excited at the dramatic and rare display.  (We have had spectacular luck in our game sightings this whole trip, and everyone in the group had been saying for several days, "We're hot!  We're gonna see a cheetah!" But the guides had always been quick to cool our ardor, saying that that was a tough thing to find and we shouldn't get our hopes up.  So it was only natural that we found three at once.)

But the most memorable part of our stay at Hwange was not in the park at all.  It was on our second day, when we visited a local school and a family compound.  The school is a Catholic school with nearly 600 students in grades K-7, and over 20% of the students have lost at least one parent to AIDS.  Two dozen -- 4% -- have lost BOTH parents.  The situation has improved a great deal in the past few years with the improved availability of retroviral drugs, but the principal, a composed, articulate, and smoothly politic man named Mr. Tembo, told us that up to a couple of years ago they were attending about one funeral per week.  Now it is down to one every few months.

They are of course desperately short on books, supplies, and just about everything, and OAT contributes a portion of our trip price to a nonprofit foundation that they operate, that helps fund this and other such schools.  (We also made an additional donation.)  The tuition is $8 per month (not a typo), and many students' families can't make it; some help out around the school as a form of payment.  The students come from several miles around; some arrive via tractor-drawn flatbed in lieu of a school bus (we actually saw kids arriving this way), and many walk, from distances up to nearly five miles away.  We saw that happening too as we drove along the surrounding dirt roads.

The staff strongly encouraged us to interact with the students, and turned us loose first in a sixth grade class and later in a kindergarten class.  We were the first visitors to these particular classes (though not to the school itself), and we may as well have arrived from Mars; many of the older kids in particular were very shy, others less so.  They told us what they wanted to be when they group: doctors and teachers were popular, though among the kids I spoke to there were an inordinate number of future pilots and soldiers. The school prides itself in particular on their science performance, and they have one especially outstanding student, a sixth grade girl, who has won prizes for the school in various regional and national science competitions.  She wants to be an astronaut, and when Mr. Tembo heard that Alice and I were from NASA he got very excited and called her to the office to meet us.  She was a tall, slender, pretty girl with very short hair, and was basically paralyzed with shyness.  We each gave her a pep talk.

The kindergartners ranged in age from two to five, and if there ever a bunch of affectionate kids, this was it.  They literally swarmed us, hanging on to our legs, hugging us, reaching to be picked up, touching our hair, amazed to see their photos on our digital cameras.  Alice in particular was hard to tear away, both because she was enjoying it so much and because the kids glommed on to her like superglue; her light skin, blue eyes, and strawberry blonde hair were a source of deep fascination and wonderment.  We had to literally pry the kids off her, and, somewhat more figuratively, pry her away from them.  I think we received some kind of insight into Angelina Jolie's mindset: you want to start picking them out like puppy dogs -- I'll take that one home, and that one, and those two....  It was a moving and somewhat astonishing experience. I would have loved to spend more time there, talking with the kids and the teachers, playing with the little ones, and soaking up the feel of the place, steeped in both hope and tragedy.

Our next stop was a single-family village, a fenced-in compound of about a half dozen round thatched huts with dirt floors adjacent to a field, owned by the family patriarch and occupied by him, his wife, their 8 children, and their 7 grandchildren.  The family was cheerful and welcoming, the eldest daughter doing most of the talking since she could speak English. (And we also noticed that despite their evident extreme poverty she had a cell phone, though without electricity she could only charge it when in town.)  They are subsistence farmers, and things are not going well for them because of the drought; they are literally dirt poor.  We did not head there directly from the school, instead stopping first at a grocery store where we bought supplies for them: bags of flour, loaves of bread, cooking oil, and so forth...along with a foul locally-brewed sorghum-based beer called chubuku, as a gift for the adults.  (We had also brought along some small gifts from home, scented soaps for the women in our case, clothing and other items from some of the other travelers in our group.)

The headman's wife showed us into the huts, which except for their thatching were essentially adobe, made from termite clay, and variously furnished as bedrooms or a kitchen, the latter built around a small grill that burned firewood or dung as fuel.  The women walk about a mile each way to the nearest well to fetch water, which they must do four or five times a day.  It's a tough, tough, life, as hard as we have seen anywhere, scraping out a dusty existence in the dry heat.  They get by, barely: there were chickens and goats running around (the fence around the compound does not stop them) and they still work the fields when the rains allow.  We saw cattle shuffling around in the blasted dusty field beyond the fence, clustered under a nearly leafless tree to enjoy some microscopic amount of shade.  Leaning against one of the huts was a plow, a rusty single blade ox-pulled hand plow, whose likes I had previously only seen in a museum and which probably has not been used in the US in 150 years outside of places like Colonial Williamsburg.

I would like to provide more detail but this is growing rather long and I am running short on time, since our final travel group dinner is in a few minutes.  We fly to Johannesburg tomorrow (Monday) morning, then stay the night and depart for home on Tuesday evening.  If I have time tomorrow I will write about yesterday and today, which wear our final days in Zimbabwe and which (in the interest of going out with a bang) were marked by three spectaculars: a walk along the rim of Victoria Falls, another walk with some lions (we walked with and petted several young ones) at a research facility, and a helicopter flight over the falls.  And oh yes, watching Alice bargain in the craft marketplace in an ultimately successful attempt to by fabric, bracelets, necklaces, etc., as we are swarmed with vendors.

So I hope to get that all in later, though I cannot promise that I will.  (Perhaps on the flight to Johannesburg tomorrow if I get ambitious.)  But if I don't, well, it's been one king hell of a trip, our best one ever, and if you don't hear from me for the next couple of months it is because I am sequestered, sorting through 2500 pictures and videos....


Oct 1: The Grand Finale

We leave for Johannesburg in a few hours and since Alice has decided to brave the craft vendors once again, I have elected to stay behind in the room and use our final hour or two to bring my journal up to date.

Our final activity in Hwange was a visit to a Painted Dog conservation.  The Painted Dogs -- also called wild dogs and painted wolves -- are extremely rare and endangered, numbering only 3400 in all of Africa. (One reason they are endangered is that they are easily caught accidentally as a by-catch by hunters who have laid out fields of snares to catch the ubiquitous impalas; the snares are wire loops that hang at head level and strangle the dogs.) They look like German shepherds with big jackal-like ears and blotchy white-brown-black coloring, hence the name.  They keep a small number at this facility for study, putting tracking collars on them and releasing them into the wild. The curator (or whatever you call him) was astounded to hear that we had encountered a pack of about 17 of them, lazing in the shade in Zambia. (And our tour lead, Nash, reminded us that we had been a bit blasé at the time -- they looking much like plain old dogs and all -- without realizing how very lucky we were to have seen them at all.)

We left Hwange late Saturday morning for the 2 1/2 drive to Victoria Falls, this time on a comfortable minibus rather than a Land Rover since there is a conventional highway connecting the two.  Our hotel here is quite nice, with actual working air conditioning, hot water, a nice swimming pool, and all that good stuff.  Vic Falls, as I mentioned, is *the* major tourist destination in Zimbabwe, and aside from Hwange National Park pretty much the only reason to come to Zimbabwe.  Indeed, the falls are right on the border with Zambia, with most of the cataracts on the Zimbabwean side, and the local joke is that if they were somehow able to move the falls one mile south then they would -- at which point the Zimbabwean economy, already circling the drain, would implode entirely.  I may have mentioned in an earlier email that the unemployment rate here is 80%, and no, that too is not a typo. There are a number of nice hotels like this one (called, appropriately enough for a huge waterfall, the Rainbow Hotel), mostly on the outskirts of town.  Downtown, such as it is, is very small and pretty seedy, with a lot of ramshackle souvenir and craft stores at the core, surrounded by a smattering of more upscale stores as well as rows of safari tour operators, Internet cages, and the like. The population of the town is about 40,000, about 25,000 of whom are importuning you to buy bead necklaces and carved hippos at any given moment.

The Zimbabwean government is not exactly known for its high standards of crime control and general law enforcement ethics, but they take tourist protection seriously for the simple but compelling reason that even a single high-profile tourist incident (an American getting killed in a robbery, say) could start a chain reaction of tour cancellations that could deliver the coup de grace to the entire national economy. It is for this reason that they have created a special corps of Tourist Police who wear conventional khaki police uniforms and day-glo stenciled vests and who walk or bicycle through the downtown area, staying close to tourists as they encounter them.  We have so far had two such police escorts as we walked around, one on a bike and one on foot.  They are friendly and not above schmoozing for a little baksheesh.  One escorted us for the half mile walk back to our hotel, talking about how hard it was to find affordable clothing in Zimbabwe and remarking that if I ever come back I should bring him a teeshirt as a gift.  I took the hint, so when we got to the hotel I told him to wait, then went back to our room to fetch teeshirt to give him. He was delighted -- this is a truly poverty stricken place -- and so if you ever see a picture of a Zimbabwean cop wearing a Texas A&M Meteorology Department teeshirt, you'll know where he got it.

(By the way, this clothing business is a big deal here: it really is hard for locals to buy clothes, and you can literally sell or barter the shirt off your back, or your hat, or your shoes, as part of the negotiation process when buying souvenirs.)

The falls are just outside of town and are spectacular.  They are one of the largest waterfalls in the world, though that is always an ambiguous claim since there at least three ways to express how "large" a waterfall is: its height, its length, and its water volume.  By the latter two measures it is about twice the size of Niagara Falls, but the water volume here varies drastically with season (we are in the dry season now), so I don't know whether they are referring to the yearly average, or the peak, or what.  But this is nitpicking.  It's a helluva sight: the falls are 300 feet high and about a mile and a half long, cutting a gorge that is a couple of hundred feet wide, a long irregular gash in the Earth.  During the rainy season the water cascades down along the entire mile-plus length, which are told is an incredible sight but very difficult to photograph at ground level because of the huge volume of mist and spray.  As it is, it was more than impressive, with several huge cataracts of a few hundred yards (though sometimes much less) in width, separated by the sheer wall of the chasm, spread out along the mile length.

We walked the mile length of the gorge, stopping at a dozen or so vantage points to snap away like fiends and generally gape in awe.  It was late afternoon, and the mist rising from the gorge threw rainbows everywhere that amplified the otherworldliness of the place.  With that much water being thrown around I can only imagine what it is going to look like in a couple of months.  As it is, I took a zillion pictures and videos.

Yesterday, Sunday, was our last full day here, and we went out with a bang.  In the morning we visited a lion rescue facility, essentially a breeding and training facility where they take in lions that have become de-acclimated to the wild (e.g., because of having been stolen and raised in compounds since they were cubs), and then reacclimating them and breeding them so that their cubs can grow up in a bounded wild area without human contact, then reintroduced into the actual wild.  You can interact with the young ones before they get too old to have safe contact with people; we walked and sat down with a pair of 14 month old and a pair of 7 month old lions for about an hour, during which time you can touch them, pet them, etc., under very carefully observed conditions.  Make no mistake: these are not tame house pets, and there are all sorts of rules to make sure that you do not inadvertently spook them or provoke their attack instincts: stay behind or to the side, do not touch their heads, do not stand up suddenly, and so forth.  And in case you forget those rules, there is a guy standing several yards away carrying a rifle and wearing a bandellero with bullets the size of my index finger.  (To shoot the lions, not you… they’re not THAT strict.)

It was pretty cool, and did answer a couple of questions that I had been wondering about, namely (1) since I am so allergic to house cats, am I allergic to lions as well?  (Answer: no.) And (2) what does live lion fur feel like? (Answer: short and coarse, and their bodies are unsurprisingly hard and sinewy.)  And so although I, unlike Alice, am not a cat person, we bought the video of us interacting with the lions.  (One member of our group, a woman who with her husband we have become friends with), is a heavy-duty cat person and was beyond rapturous when she had her turn to pet the lions.  The expression on her face was one of religious transcendence.)

After lunch we did our final Big Event: a helicopter ride over the falls.  It was a real assembly line operation, with them hustling people on and off the helicopter as soon as the skids touched the pad.  Total flight time was all of 12 minutes, during which time we circled four times over the falls, twice in each direction so that each of the six the passengers could get a good look regardless of which side they sat on there.  And for that 12 minutes, even at the price it was worth it: the view was eye-popping, and I once again went wild with the camera (which is of course why  we are here in the first place).

The van from the helicopter tour dropped us off downtown (such as it is) at our request so that Alice could exercise her acquisitive hunter-gatherer instincts.  Needless to say we were swarmed by vendors, and at one curio market -- a long dark warehouse of a building with a single narrow aisle lined with women selling fabrics and trinkets -- Alice did a creditable job of being the skeptical negotiator for various necklaces and bolts of fabric.  There are important operational tactics to consider when doing this, such as having a lot of small bills: if you negotiate a price of, say, $11 for something, and all you have is ten- and five-dollar bills then you have a problem because the last thing that that vendor is going to want to do is give you back $4, and you will find yourself haggling all over again to avoid being given your change in carved hippos.  Alice got good at demanding the cash, though in one case where the differential was only a dollar or two, she finally said, "Keep the change," to the delight of the woman vendor.

Outside of that particular building most of the vendors were young and middle-aged men, and they are much more aggressive than the women.  Once one of those guys latches onto you as you walk down the street, you need a sharp stick to get him to go away.  It was a pain in the neck but we did succeed in not buying anything that we didn't actually want, and the post-negotiation prices were very low, typically half to two-thirds of what was being asked, sometimes much less.  (There's a glut of carved hippos: you can get them for dirt cheap, and no, we didn't buy any.)

And that, I think is pretty much the end of our African adventure, which has now become the standard against which all future vacations will be measured.  See everyone soon!