Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leaving Africa, acclimatizing in London, and bringing it all home: Days 14-17

I am back home now.
Everything is familiar again – perhaps too familiar.  I feel as if I had a dream of Africa, but did not actually go there.  I carry lions and elephants and zebras with me now; I carry endless, endless plains.  But they do not fit.  Not here.  In the dizzying speed of vehicles on highway 401.  In the bright, bright lights of the city.  Everywhere there are buildings, and cars.  I do not see how the plains could ever fit here, in the world I know.
But yet I’ve seen them.  If I close my eyes I am still there, in my dream of Africa.  The giraffe ambles behind the trees.  Purple and pink lizards, as if coloured by a Western school-child and not nature, sun themselves on rocks.  I type with eyes closed.  I breathe in.  I still see the elephants, splashing in the water and bathing themselves with their trunks.  I still hear the sounds of Mosi-Oa-Tunya (for isn’t that what we should really call it?).  The smoke that thunders.  I still feel the hot Zambian sun and the cooling mist from the falls.
Hyenas run across the plains.  A buffalo falls.
A lioness emerges from the tall dry grasses with a zebra leg.  Little cubs eat and bounce, licking blood off their faces.  Snuggling against each other.
My phone blinks at me.  I hear car horns.  The dim, ever-present noise of city life.  I shut my eyes again.  My eyes seem to filling with tears.  I reach my hand up to wipe them away, and suddenly my arm is an elephant’s trunk.  Wiping away mud. I remember you, elephant.  You will always be with me.
Here, in these city walls, I am the one in a cage. 
Tower Bridge
London was exhilarating.  After 13 days in rural, third world countries, I immersed myself in everything Western.  The red, double decker buses thrilled me.  I could not get enough of the also red phone booths strewn about the city, with their charming appearance and actual phones inside.  The glow of Big Ben and the London Eye were magical apparitions, a city of dreams and modern fairy-tales suddenly come alive.  I was in it.  Harry Potter, Doctor Who, every fantasy world I have loved seemed to be set here, in this United Kingdom, and I could not be more in love.

Soap that smelled wonderful, consistent running water, toilet seats, doors that locked, heating, electricity, internet.  The Western world came rushing back into view in full force and I was enamoured, grateful. 
View of the city from Tower Bridge
We walked around London during the day, viewing the beautiful architecture of the city from the ground and then from atop the Tower Bridge.  The river Thames bustled with boat traffic.  Long gone was the hot Zambian sun, as we pulled our toques down snugger and wrapped our sweaters around us more warmly.  This weather, I knew.  This weather was familiar.
We walked around again at night, immersing ourselves in the sights and sounds of the city, walking over bridges, seeing the sparkle of city lights on the river, Big Ben’s glowing clock a fascinating reminder that I was really here, a city so unlike yet like my own.  London.
London Eye

We ate excellent food; celebrated with wine.  We had survived the African wilderness. 
Our 2 and a half days in London are a blur.  We walked around so much, for I couldn’t get enough. Camden Market with its bustling, intricate crafts on display, delicious food from all over the world, all set in a unique old stable.  Giant lion statues guarding the fountains of Trafalgar Square with its delicate floating poppies; Westminster Abbey and the hundreds of small wooden crosses remembering fallen soldiers – Remembrance Day.  We walked more slowly here, sobered by the sheer amount of names.  Madness, war is.  “They fought for our freedom,” we were told as children, and the message wants to stay, despite knowing better.  It is an attempt to glorify war, make meaning out of the meaningless.  But that’s ok.  We can still grieve.  And remember to do better.  Are our lives really any better than the ones in the small villages in Africa that sped by us on the roads?  I don’t know.
I don’t want to romanticize it, either.  We certainly encountered a lot of poverty; people begging us for money; children and adults who would appear out of nowhere (even staff in an airport) and calmly ask you for money or food.  We encountered religious and cultural ideas that we knew were not accepting of certain types of relationships; we felt that uncomfortable back drop, and knew to keep our feelings and ideas on the back burner.  We drove by countless piles of plastic and garbage that has literally nowhere to go.
Big Ben
But I don’t know Africa.  I know it as one who has picked up a book off the shelf, skimmed the back page, maybe read a sentence or two here and there out of context.  But it was enough to want to know more.  I carry in me whispers of African countries, tiny pockets of wonder amidst an impossibly huge continent.
Africa is so big.  And it is not one entity.  That is perhaps what impressed me most.  A map of the continent now reveals to me places and images, voices, rivers.  I can trace the path of the Zambezi river now; I know how to find the Serengeti, the Maasai-Mara.  I can see Nairobi’s dot on the map and trace our route with our finger.  I see the point where four countries meet near Victoria Falls and I can close my eyes and see the riverbanks where we use a boat to cross the river.  These things leap off the map; it is no longer one solid mass.
The French call us “les fous d’Afrique” – those who become mad about Africa.  I’ve caught it.  There was no vaccine for it, and it seems to be incurable.  We met so many travelers on our route who had spent months traveling the continent, or who were about to.  I understand them now.  It is a vast, unexplored set of countries, peoples, landscapes that I can’t believe have been hidden from me all this time.  It is a new world opened up to me.
I did not dream Africa.  I carry small reflections with me.
When you see me next, ask me for stories.  Ask me to tell you about the time lions walked through our campsite, or to describe the elephants of Botswana playing in the river.  Ask me what it’s like to see a giraffe for the very first time, or to spot herds of zebra from high up in a silently floating balloon.  Don’t ask me for the photos, though I have those, too.  Let me somehow give you a little piece of this passionate madness.  Let me spread it here, right here, within the four walls of our city, so we can all know together how huge and beautiful the world is.  How connected we are.
Ask me for the heart of Africa, and listen.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Botswana – Chobe National Park: Day 13

Four countries have joint borders very near where we were staying: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. Day trips into Chobe National Park in Botswana are very common from both sides of the falls, so we of course couldn't resist adding another country to our list of visited places.

Our hostel provided us with a shuttle to the Kazungula border between Botswana and Zambia (about a 45 minute drive) and helped us through the border formalities (no passport drama this time) before leaving us at the border crossing boat.
 While in Africa we had already crossed borders by plane, truck, and on foot, and now it was time to cross one by water. The small ferry collected the rest of the passengers headed to Botswana (about 16 of us) and soon we were zooming across the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, about a 5 minute boat ride.
Ox-pecker bird cleaning insects off
the unimpressed water buffalo
Once on the other side, we got our passports stamped again, and then hopped on a truck that brought us to a small restaurant where we were served a light breakfast before heading to the first half of the day's activities – a morning game “drive” via small boat.
We set off on the Chobe river, which separates Namibia and Botswana in this area. (The division is in the deepest part of the river). Namibia was at times a thirty second swim away from us, but crocodiles and hippos are the best border control, so we didn't get to add a sixth African country to our visited list.
Our guide was a bird enthusiast today, which I appreciated, and he took care in pointing out the various birds and telling us their names. I think I've seen more species of bird in Africa than I have my whole life in Ontario – the variety is astonishing. I take photos and scribble down names for later, while the others turn their eyes to the larger animals.
Notice the large chunk missing from the side of the right hippo -
likely got in a fight with an elephant
The river is full of hippos, and we get to go fairly close to them in our little boat. It is amazing to watch them swim and lumber around. They are cautious of us, and it is amusing to watch them sink under the water to hide, slowly lift the tips of their heads and eyes to peer back at us, then sink quietly under water once more. There are plenty of antelope everywhere, too. By this point in the trip all their names and subtleties are blending together in my head – impala, Grant's gazelles, various other kinds of gazelles... our guide points out that the distended stomachs of the antelopes we see here mean they are all pregnant. They can control when they give birth and wait until the rainy season starts, so that their offspring have plenty of green plants to nourish themselves on. He also points out that they are the “MacDonalds” of the lion world – fast food, because there are so many of them.
We enjoy getting up close to some crocodiles as well, basking in the sun to regulate their body temperatures. They mostly ignore us, but one silently opens its mouth and shows us its teeth, remaining that way for several minutes before slowly closing its jaws again. Yeah, definitely not attempting a swim crossing to Namibia today.
The theme of the day, however, is elephants. We soon come upon a herd of them in the water. About a dozen, all enjoying the river as only elephants can – spraying themselves, drinking, climbing on each other, splashing around. Further down, one of them is giving itself a mud bath. We watch in fascination as this large, wrinkly animal sucks up mud with its trunk, and then proceeds to fling it over its back, head, ears. Our guide explains that they do this to protect themselves from burning in the hot sun. Elephant sunscreen. I can't get enough of this elephant. It gets some mud in its eye at one point and endearingly uses its trunk to rub the mud out of its eye.
Time for a mud bath
My heart surges with a sudden intense connection with this strange, grey creature. I rub my eyes when things get in them, too! Such a simple thing, yet it feels like a profound connection, somehow. It seems as though no matter how far I travel, its is the similarities I see in the far away people, places, animals, and landscapes that strikes me the most.
Let me just get this mud out of my eye
Being in the boat lets us see a lot more of the intimate moments of these creatures' lives. I heard one tourist say to another at some point during my travels in Africa, that once you've seen each animal, that's kind of it, you don't really need to keep seeing them. A sentiment I can't really understand or relate to. Sure, I saw an elephant in the Serengeti. It was eating leaves from the trees. But now I saw a baby elephant splashing. Another one washing itself with mud. And rubbing its eye with its trunk! Elephants swimming. Elephant herds walking to the river. Elephants hiding in the forest. An elephant expertly swishing its muddy grasses in the river back and forth before eating each bunch; the ritual enthralling.
No, I could never get tired of seeing elephants, for I see so much more than that. I see worlds of unknown behaviours and social complexities from creatures that I may never see again for a very, very long time. I don't tear my eyes away, for I can't get enough.
After the boat ride, we are taken back to the little restaurant and are treated to an excellent buffet lunch before our afternoon game drive in the park. The first thing we do is all reach for our phones, trying to access the very weak and inconsistent wifi, until one of us finally gets access and announces the result to the others – for it it's US election night back home, and while we were watching the elephants, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Notice the sleeping baby elephants on the ground

The world suddenly seems like a very different place than it was that morning. In the moment, I can't really process the meaning, nor do I want to. I'm in Botswana. There are elephants. The time for processing world events can wait. I send out a quick message of love to some of my distraught friends, and I immerse myself back in Africa.
For I know that the world needs some Africa right now, and the most useful thing I can do right now is memorize every detail and bring it back home with me. The world needs to know that tall lanky giraffes walk around at the top of orange sandy hills stretching their patchy long necks up to the few green leaves at the tips of dry branches. It needs to know that elephant adults will stand in a circle around a tree in the shade, guarding their sleeping babies sprawled on the ground between their legs in the dust. That almost every bush along the Chobe river has impalas hiding in the shade. That iridescent blue birds hop around in the sand just long enough for you to look at and gasp at their beauty. That warthogs play in the mud and then curl up adorably in the dry sand.
Water buffalo with baby
Our afternoon game drive is full of these moments and so many others; it's the perfect way to end our final day in Africa. 
Resting warthog

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Devil's Pool & a Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi, Zambia: Day 12

The Devil's Pool.  "Um, no way," is what I believe I said to J when she first showed me the photos of this terrifying experience.

And yet somehow here I was, staring at the edge of the tallest waterfall in the world, and it was almost my turn to go in.


The Devil's Pool is a small deep pool at the very top of Victoria Falls.  The pool has a natural rock barrier that prevents you from being poured over the edge of the waterfall.  Regardless, it is only advisable to do with a guide, as they know the exact places that are safe to swim so the current doesn't push you over the waterfall in a place that has no barrier.  It is also only accessible during a few months of the year, during the dry season.  At any other time of year, the force of the water is too great and will send you over the waterfall immediately, rock barrier or not.
Close-up of the pounding waters of Victoria Falls

Engaging in activities that are death-defying, high-adrenaline, or just plain frightening is not really my cup of tea.  Roller coasters?  No thanks.  Sky diving?  Definitely out of the question.  I prefer to look, take pictures, hike, watch the birds. 

So how did I find myself here, having swam through part of the Zambezi river, bare feet standing on slippery rocks in rushing water, hot sun beating down on my head, heart pounding as I look out at the water plummeting over the side of the gorge, at the top of the tallest waterfall in the world?

I had signed us up for the Devil's Pool mostly for J's sake.  It had always been on her wish list, and I figured I would make the swim with the group and then stand on a safe rock somewhere and watch her do it.  I toyed with the idea of doing it, too - I wanted to be brave enough, have that experience too.  "You'll regret it if you don't," J had said to me earlier.
View from the top of the waterfall -
the mist is from the crashing falls

Our guides picked us up from the lawn of the Royal Livingstone Hotel, and we hopped in a small boat and were soon speeding across the Zambezi River and over to Livingstone Island.  We disembarked onto soft sand and were treated to a drink of banana and maize before continuing the walk across the island.  There were stunning views of the falls here, and we stopped to take some photos before continuing on to the other side of the small island.  We were told to leave our bags, hand our cameras over to the guide, and get into the river for the swim to the Devil's Pool.
View of the falls from Livingstone Island

The guide was with us every step of the way, explaining exactly where to step into the river, where the large rocks were, which ones were slippery, where best to swim and where best to "crab walk" sideways through the river, and pointing out the exact swim route so that the current didn't sweep us away.

I readily followed all the instructions.  There was no time to think, really - just do.  Step here.  Swim there.  Catch up to the others.  Walk sideways through the water.  Swim around the large rock.  Climb out on the other side.

And suddenly there we were.  Standing on rocks, just metres away from the edge.  The guide went in first, and instructed the others on how and where to get in.  One by one people let themselves in, and then it was J's turn.  Once she was in the water, I quickly followed the guide's instructions and got in, too.  There was no time to think; therefore, no time to be afraid.  

"Hold on to the edge of the rocks," someone told me.  J?  The guide?  I complied - it was easy to feel safe (ish) as I shimmied myself along the very stable boulders.  I reached J, relaxing in a corner.  The rock barrier was thicker here, and we were cradled in gentle water.  This, I could handle.  Still, I clung to the rocks.  Little fish nipped at our feet.  The sounds of rushing water were all around me as others slowly made their way into the pool.  The guide had us in three "stations" around the pool - some people in the "cradle" where we were; some near where we had entered but where the water was gushing in full force; and a few at a time at the actual edge of the falls.  J and I watched as others made their way to the edge with the guide, and the other guide snapped dozens of photos.
Us swimming through the Zambezi

Finally, it was our turn.  I moved aside and let J go first.  She reached her hand back for me, and I slowly let go of my safety boulders and swam the few feet towards her.  The rock barrier was indeed very thick, and felt relatively safe.  The falls poured over the rocks immediately to my right as I faced into the gorge.  Wow!  Here I was.  At the edge of the Devil's Pool!  J and the guide peered over the edge, pulling themselves closer to it.

I was quite content to stay where I was.  "I'm good right here!" I said.  But neither of them was having it.  "You have to see the rainbows!" was J's reply.  I was already here - J was right, I'd regret it if I didn't have the full experience.  I cautiously pulled myself forwards a tiny bit and stretched my neck.  "Oh!  There's a double rainbow!" I exclaimed.  I looked over and around for a few seconds at the crazy amount of water going over the edge and the stunning rainbows, then lowered myself back to where I had been.  That was enough for me!
Us at the edge of the Devil's Pool

The "photographer" guide busied himself taking plenty of photos of us, and then we were ushered over to the third "station" - a couple of metres away from the edge, but it actually felt more dangerous as the water pounded our backs and we clung to the rocks.  All I could focus on was clinging to the slippery boulder edges underneath me, and making sure my foot stayed lodged in a small indentation.  Surely this water was going to pour me over the edge?  It really was an exhilarating feeling, though.

After a few minutes of this, another guide came over and told us we could climb back out, and gestured vaguely towards the rocks, then swam off.  I did not budge.  All I could feel was the force of the waterfall behind me and all I could see was the current it was creating - directly over the falls.  "I need help, come back," I called out.  No way was I letting go of my precarious hold on the rocks without someone to help me back.

The guide eventually came back and tried to tell me to swim out and around the current, but I was having none of it.  "I need to hold your hand," I said, so he held out his hand, which I grabbed and he pulled me out of the current and over to the rock.  I scrambled out with relief, and J followed behind me.

"We're alive!" I said in astonishment as I looked back at the Devil's Pool, now conquered.
Other people doing the Devil's Pool...
taken the day before from the opposite side of the gorge in Zimbabwe

Fear is a funny thing.  It can consume me, but once I'm IN the experience, it seems to get put on hold.  There's no time for fear when I'm focusing hard on something (in this case, clinging to rocks!)  While it is definitely not something I would have considered doing on my own, I'm definitely glad I did it.  The view we got from being right at the edge... incredible.

That night, we set off on a sunset cruise of the Zambezi, with free drinks and dinner.  The boat slowly went up and down the riverbanks as the sun gently made its way down to the horizon, and we enjoyed spotting crocodiles, various birds, monkeys, and far away buffaloes on the shores.

The highlight of the night, however, were the elephants.  Large groups of elephants had come to the river to drink and bathe, and we excitedly rushed to the sides of the boat as one elephant dipped its trunk into the water, filled it up, and then calmly curled it up into its mouth and drank, the extra water droplets dripping back down into the river.  We watched as it repeated this exercise numerous times, until the boat moved further up the river.  It was heading towards another large group of elephants that had decided to cross the river.

The side of those large creatures swimming across the water in front of us, sometimes climbing on each other, sometimes dipping their entire bodies underneath so that only trunks were sticking out, sometimes rolling around or splashing, was a surprise to our eyes that had been previously used to seeing elephants only in the dry plains of the Serengeti.  We watched, delighted, as they made their way across the river and one by one climbed onto the bank and into the trees.

Eyes and hearts full of elephant wonder, we sipped our beers as the sky turned pink and orange, and then finally dark.  A gentle end to an exhilarating day.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe: Day 11

Victoria Falls.  Or as the locals call it, Mosi-Oa-Tunya.  The smoke that thunders.

Even though the gorge that creates the falls directly divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, the view of the falls is much better from the Zimbabwe side (but a lot more difficult to fly into).  So our mission for the day was to attempt yet another border crossing – this time, on foot!

We took the free shuttle from our hostel over to the Zambian border, and headed to the Zambia “Exit” office.  We show our passports, and the man at the desk examines them carefully. He looks at mine, then at J's.  He flips through some pages of mine again.  Peers closer.  “November 9?” he says.

For you see, even though we had entered Zambia on November 6, the immigration officer at the airport had stamped our passports with November 9th  (and today's date is only November 7th). Presumably he had been half asleep when he set the date on his stamp, and saw the 9 as a 6.  Who knows.  We only noticed after we'd left the airport, but didn't think it would be a big deal.

“Step over to the side,” the exit officer told us.  “I will ask my colleague.”  We did as we were told as he continued to stamp everyone else's passport's and letting them through.  We glanced at each other nervously.  Would we not be allowed to leave Zambia and enter Zimbabwe?  Were we trapped in Zambia forever?  Did they think we faked our entry visas (and were stupid enough to put a date in the future?)

After several minutes, he calls us back again and requests our passports again.  We quickly hand them over.  I also pull out my boarding pass from the flight, showing we entered the country on November 6.  The officer examines my passport again, flipping back and forth through the pages.  “He even stamped it twice,” he says, in disbelief.  “Was he drunk?” he asks us.  We smile nervously.  His colleague finally comes over.  We explain what happened for yet a third time.  Finally they reach for their exit stamp and bang it on both passports.  “You can go,” he says.

Relieved, we quickly walk over to the bridge that goes over the gorge connecting the two countries.  Before we can get on, however, there is a “check point” where two guards ask for our passports again.  We hand them over.  They flip back and forth through the pages, pointing at the stamp “from the future”and laughing.  Finally they hand the passports back and say “I'm going to have to send you back.  You see, this stamp...”  I quickly interrupt and explain they already checked it and they told us it was okay.  He says “oh, okay then,” and lets us through.

Finally!  We've exited the country.  Now we're on the bridge... in no-man's land.  We still have to walk about a kilometre to Zimbabwe.  The sun beats down hot on our heads as we start the trek across.  The view of the gorge is stunning, but we barely have time to to enjoy the view as a man walks over to us, asking where we're from and then trying to convince us to buy his “trillion dollar bills” from Zimbabwe.  We politely say we don't want anything, but he continues to follow us.  In silence.  We quicken our pace slightly and stick close together.  Other locals are walking across the bridge in both directions, so we just try to stay in sight of other people.  Eventually he loses interest and walks away.

We pass another man, calling out to us if we want drinks.  After we decline, at least he leaves us alone.  We're almost there.  The sun is getting hotter.  I keep pulling out my water bottle, drinking the water that has already reached a hot temperature.  I feel dizzy; my heart is racing.  How do people live with this heat?!  Finally, we make it to the Zimbabwe entry point.  Thankfully this is a much quicker process, and after a payment of $75 USD, we are proud possessors of a Zimbabwean single-entry visa.

We enter the national park and are soon on our way to the falls.

We hear the massive sheets of falling water before we see them.  The first sight of the falls is not the main part, but still very impressive.  For there are several ways to measure a waterfall.  Niagara Falls has the most volume of water; Iguazu falls is the widest; and Victoria Falls/Mosi-Oa-Tunya is the tallest.  However, it is also quite wide as well, so we walk along the trail to the subsequent viewpoints, growing more impressed each time.

Finally we are at the main falls.  They're breath-taking.  I look over at the cascades of falling water all along the gorge, the massive force of which causes rain-like droplets to cover our cameras and us (a welcome cooling from the scorching sun).  I breathe it in.  It hits me how incredibly far away I am from home.  I'm in Zimbabwe.  Southern Africa.  Staring at one of the bucket-list dreams of many people around the world.  The stunning beauty that propelled me so far from home is crashing right in front of me.

I feel so very lucky, humbled, privileged to be here.

We walk further, taking our time.  We came for the falls, after all.  The views keep getting better and better - different parts of the gorge; different angles and sections of the majestic falling water.  The sun beats down.  I drink from my warm water bottle.  I cover my camera with its plastic rain cover.  I take photos.  I stop and stare.  A cool breeze lifts off from the water every now and then and provides temporary relief.  A monkey wanders by with a tiny baby clinging to its stomach.

We walk further on.  The trails in this park look like a tropical rain forest.  Even though the rest of Africa is dry and hot, this small section is lush and green, thriving from the waterfall's generous mists.

We reach the end of the gorge.  In the wet season, the entire gorge is over flowing with waterfalls; today, this particular section is dry.  We carefully climb over the large boulders and peer down into the gorge below.  There's the Zambezi river, having completed its fantastic journey over the edges of the cliffs and now flowing quietly, greenish-blue, over and through the rocks below.

J gets precariously close to the edge, always seeking the best view (or the most terrifying one).  I hang a few steps back, biting my tongue so I don't call out too many words of caution.  Birds like this one need to stretch their wings as far as they'll go; test their limits.  I am not one to get between a bird and her freedom.
After she's done exploring the views from the edge (and I've dutifully taken all the requested photos), we slowly make our way back.  I am pulled to each viewpoint all over again, for I can't get enough of these falls.

There is a viewpoint that I especially love - one where you're still on the trail but the falls is beautifully framed by the trees and vines on the hill.  I stop and watch the falls from there for a few minutes.  I wonder if this is how the first people who discovered it felt - like peering through a window-pane at a stunning oasis of water.  The smoke that thunders.

Even though Dr. David Livingstone is recorded as the first European to "discover" the falls and there are statues and plaques (and even a city named after him) devoted to him, I find the memorial a little strange.  Who cares who the first "European" was to see the falls?  I find little meaning in that.  Today it is me.  I am the first.  So is J.  And everyone else here.  We all look upon this spectacular creation of nature for the first time.  We are all explorers, traveled from near and far, united by our desire to see the tallest sheets of falling water.

And the rainbows!  How could I forget the rainbows?  The constant mist in all directions means that when the sun is out, there are always stunning rainbows all over the place.  Usually double rainbows, too.

The intense heat gets the better of us and the water that is progressively getting hotter in our water bottles just isn't cutting it anymore, so we make our way back to the entrance where there is a small restaurant and order some ice-cold fruit juice blends.  Anything cold is a luxury here, and we slowly sip our juices under the shade of the straw restaurant hut, watching the monkeys and warthogs play in the woods in front of us.

We discuss what to do next.  Do we want to visit another part of the city?  Do any other activities?  See the gorge view from a restaurant that was recommended to us?

The heat, and our hearts, decide against all of it.  We instead walk back to one of our favourite falls viewpoints, and spend the next 45 minutes just sitting and watching.  We came for the falls, after all.  We couldn't think of a better way to end the day than just sitting and being with the spectacular waterfall that propelled us across an ocean just to admire its beauty.


We reluctantly pull ourselves away from the falls and start on the journey back across the border.  The border between Zambia and Zimbabwe at the falls closes at 10pm, but we definitely don't want to be making the walk in the dark, so we give ourselves plenty of time.  Thankfully, it is a less eventful journey on all accounts.  I watch the local women carefully as they walk along the bridge ahead of us.  Even though there is a pedestrian walkway, they avoid it in the sections where there are long lines of trucks parked, prefering to walk in the road.  I suggest to J that we follow their lead, even though it puts us in the path of the occasional oncoming vehicle.  Their instinct makes sense - using the walkway would hide us behind those long lines of trucks, making us more vulnerable and potential targets for the many desperate vendors (or others) along this no-man's land bridge.  When in doubt, do what the locals do - so we did.

We safely made our way all the way back to Zambia, and caught a cab back to our hostel.  We treated ourselves to dinner out that night, and some much needed ice-cold Mosi beers.  We clinked our bottles together, celebrating the day.  We made it to Zimbabwe and back safely, on foot, and saw the incredible beauty of Victoria Falls.

"We'll be back," we tell each other.  "We have to see it in the rainy season, too."

But for now, we are more than content, sipping our cold beers under the warm Zambian night sky, minds full of one of the seven wonders of the world.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Back to Nairobi & flying to Zambia: Days 9 & 10

Last night we camped for the last time – this time in a fenced campsite complete with a bar.  No need for headlamps and scanning, here.  We sat in a circle around the fire eating dinner, and our guide asked us our most and least favourite parts of the trip.  I find such exercises silly, for how can I sum up the worlds of feeling expressed in these past blog entries into a simple sentence or two?

There were hard parts, yes – traveling with 20 other people who are necessarily more social than I am is always a challenge.  I prefer to stare out the window, immerse myself in the experience, not chatter to others about it.  But I have years of practice tuning out the world when needed, so I managed.  The bumpy roads were hard; the dust; the constant putting up and taking down of tents; the cramped lockers at the back of the truck that barely fit our belongings and were not designed for 22 people to access simultaneously; the toilets that didn't flush and didn't have toilet paper or soap (at best) or were merely holes in the ground; the constant clamoring of locals for you to buy things, give them money; the fear of being eaten by lions; the long drives.
But I do not really remember those things.  I remember the giraffes eating leaves off the top of trees; the moonlit zebras; the plains that stretched on forever.  I remember the smiling, waving children at the sides of the road; the dots of red-robed Maasai with their cows in the fields; the skillful carving of the hands of an artist perfect a soapstone statue.

As we drive back to Nairobi today, my mind swims with the sights and sounds of the Serengeti, and everything else becomes irrelevant.
Our truck at a gas station as we exit Tanzania

The next morning, our alarms are set for 3:50am, but after the week we've had of waking up in the dark pre-dawn hours, we barely have any difficulty.  Our bags were re-packed the night before, and we quickly got ready, had a cup of instant coffee, and headed to the hotel lobby to order an Uber to the Nairobi airport.
Yes, you read that right.  Uber is in Africa!  We confirmed with some locals that it was safe, and were soon speeding off to the airpot in record time with a very kind driver in a very clean car.  The half hour ride only cost us the equivalent of about $10, too, which was also a bonus.

The airport is steeped in security.  We had to exit the vehicle before entering, get scanned, re-enter the vehicle, get driven to our terminal, then be re-scanned again (bags and everything, this time) before even getting to the baggage drop-off and check-in.

And then we were on our way to Livingstone, Zambia.

Only a 3 hour flight away from Nairobi, Livingstone is where we will be staying for the next 4 days.  It is on the border with Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, which is why we'd come.

To see the tallest waterfall in the world.

After we settled into our hostel (Jollyboys Backpackers), we decided to join the weekly soccer game that the hostel hosts with the local orphanage.  A free shuttle took a small group of us there.  It was our first taste of Zambia.

We soon veered off the tourist roads and entered small neighbourhoods of makeshift markets on the sides of the hot, dusty roads.  It was 37 degrees Celcius in Livingstone today, and it wasn't going to get any cooler.

Men sawed planks of wood, surrounded by piles of them as well as couches and bed frames in all different stages of completion.  There were rickety built shacks along one of the roads we drove on, with comfortable looking leather couches arranged under them, presumably for sale.  Women sat with small piles of fruit for sale, chatting with each other in brightly coloured clothes until a customer happened to wander by for an orange.  Children walked around on their own, bereft of helicopter parents (and doing just fine for it).  Hand-painted signs with neat letters simply announced the names of the shops we passed; there was very little advertising here.  Groups of young and old men sat on plastic chairs under the shade of the few trees, just sitting, not talking.

We soon arrived at Lubasi orphanage and met with one of the “mothers” who works there.  The six of us sat in one of the offices while she told us about the facility.  They take in children who they've found begging on the streets, or who are otherwise brought to them by social services for one reason or another.  Some have extended family members who eventually come and take them; others live their until they have the ability to sustain themselves.  They rely entirely on donations to keep operating, and while they are able to provide homes for just over 60 children, they're currently running at half capacity due to lack of funds.  The children go to school, and are also taught other skills as “backup” in case they don't do well in their studies – for example, they are taught how to make crafts out of recycle materials, or how to work in the garden.

We're then taken to meet the children, who are sitting outside, talking and playing.  The girls are doing each other's hair.  We all stare at each other shyly.  Finally some of the children come over, shaking our hands and asking our names; introducing themselves.  A few of us sit down with them on some benches.  One of our group asks their ages.  The younger ones answer excitedly; some of the teeangers mumble an answer.  I'm sure they go through the same sort of thing every Sunday; non-African tourists come to stare at them and ask them their names and ages.

The younger ones soon take charge.  “Come, come,” one says, laughing, as he takes my hand over to the playground.  We all follow; the group of other children and teens slowly trickle their way over, as well.  The “mother” tells the one who want to play soccer to go and get dressed for it.

As we walk, we see a little toddler boy scramble up and over a concrete wall just over his height, and scramble away on his own into the mango trees.  J and I smile at each other – his monkey-climbing ability reminds us of one of her little nephews.  Some things are universal.

Over in the playground, a young girl struggles to get on a swing.  This is familiar.  J goes over and asks if she wants a push.  The girl smiles and nods.  J pushes her from behind, while I watch the small smile on the girl's face grow and grow into a grin.  “Higher?” asks J.  “Yes!” she says.  And up she goes.

The soccer game starts soon after that.  The children assemble themselves into teams.  I go over to the girl who seems to be the goalie, wondering what team I'm on.  “Girls against boys,” she says.  Ah.  Of course.
The field is made of soft brown dirt and the occasional small rock, surrounded by dry grasses.  The sun beats down hot on our acclimatized bodies.  Who plays soccer in 37 degree weather?!  Nevertheless, J and I run around, trying to simultaneously play soccer and not run into any of the children (who are much better players than I am).  Our goalie, a tall lanky boy about 9 years old, does a great job of blocking any scoring attempts.  The children shout at each other in their language as we play.  The score reaches 2-2 before J and I have to leave the field and drink from our water bottles (the water in them is already hot) while having a rest in the shade.

One of the other tourists that came with us is sitting under this tree with one of the teenage girls, showing her how to play games on her cell phone.  The ice breaker is working, and the two of them are quite engaged in their talk about the games.

I look up in the tree – a teenage boy has been sitting high above us for a while.  He laughs at something someone on the ground says.  I see a mesh hammock of sorts up there, filled with some items - “what do you have up there?” I ask.  “Books!” he says.

A reading hammock in a tree is something I suddenly want very much.

The soccer game goes on.  Someone does something against the rules, and some shouting ensues.  A young boy is playfully chased off the field.  The sun is relentless.  J and I join the game again for ten more minutes, but our bodies simply can't handle the heat.  Off the field we go again and back to the shade of the tree.  We're enjoying watching the children interact, even though we can't understand what they're saying most of the time.

A girl of about 10 wanders by with an armful of mangoes.  An older girl demands the ripest one; the younger one clutches it to her and exclaims “this yellow one is for my heart!”  The older girl yells at her, mixing between English and her native language, chasing her around the yard.  The fight seems to be complex, emotional, and about more than just a mango, but we can't quite follow it.  At one point she threatens to throw a large rock at her and beat her with a stick.  The younger one, now eating her precious mango, darts away and seeks refuge with a different older girl, who tries to cool down the angry one.

Our attention then shifts to some of the other older children who are now on the swings, playing music out of an old Blackberry.  They discuss which song to play next.  The two teenage boys start to dance, while the girls giggle at them.  The mango-clutching girl then comes over and starts to “twerk” before an older one points out to her that the “white people” are watching her; she shyly stops and buries her head in her friend while everyone laughs.

Another girl comes over to talk to us – wants to know what languages we can speak.  I teach her how to say hello and how are you in Portuguese; she teaches us how to greet in all the five languages she knows (mostly African ones, as well as Polish) and is amused at our attempts to pronounce them.

The sun is finally starting to give a little as it gets closer to dinner; it's time for us to head back to the hostel.  We say goodbye to all the children and the oldest girl escorts us down the road to where we catch the taxis.

There are no photos today.  It just didn't feel right, somehow.  They're just kids, living their lives, playing their games.  A photo wouldn't capture that, anyway.  Hope the words get across to all you readers a little taste of our first day in Zambia.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ngorongoro Crater: Day 8

Our first view of the crater was actually yesterday, as we drove to our campsite.  We stopped at a view point above the crater and looked out at the huge depression in the earth.  You could see the white of the salt lakes (currently dry) where the flamingos feed.  We knew it was teeming with animals, but none were visible from this far up.  However, when we looked really closely, we could see dozens of tiny black dots – wildebeest herds.

Crater from above

This morning, we woke at 4:30am.  It was still pitch black outside the tent.  I peeked out and did my 180 degree scan with the headlamp.  About 2 metres behind our tents were a handful of zebras, grazing.  The scene was surreal – a dark sky full of thousands of stars, and quiet zebras calmly eating grass behind our tents, their black-and-white stripes accented by the light of my headlamp.  It was going to be a magical day.

We got our things packed up, the tent taken down and put back in the truck, lunches packed for later, and breakfast eaten as the sun slowly rose.  By the time we left (6:15am) there was a spectacular sunrise blossoming in the sky.  We couldn't help but take a moment and let it fully sink in.  Here we are, on the rim of an ancient crater, watching the sun rise while zebras share our campsite.

We hop in the trucks – we split up into smaller 4x4's to go into the crater today, as our large truck can't handle the roads down into the crater.  The road is very steep, and extremely bump.  We hold on tight as we rumble over rocks and ditches, sometimes our entire bodies swinging from side to side.  Dust wafts in through the truck.  They call it the “African Massage”.  We've gotten used to this sort of terrain over the past few days, but the roads into Ngorongoro are another thing entirely.

We descend further into the crater.  The swaths of pastel-coloured landscape slowly take form and become grasses, shrubs, and the outlines of the mountains on all sides of the crater.  The animals here are trapped here – they can't leave the crater.  The crater is a micro example of the Serengeti.  There are not very many trees, so there are no giraffes.  No cheetahs or leopards, either.  But almost everything else is here.

It feels strange to be here.  Even though the Maasai have been bringing their cows down into the crater to drink from the salt lake for generations (a treacherous journey for the cows, with only 90% surviving the way back up), it somehow feels as if we are entering a place where humans have never touched – an alien landscape, if you will.

Finally, we reach the crater floor.  The first thing we see is a lone ostrich, stark black against the
magnificent backdrop of the crater mountains and plains.  Here and there, another lone animal – antelope, stork.  As we drive, we start to see larger groups of animals.  The zebras and wildebeasts are plentiful, as in the Serengeti.  A baby zebra walks by with its mother, its stripes adorably fuzzy and brown.  We stop the truck and lift the roof, standing up and peering out with our cameras at it. 

A sleeping jackal, curled up like a small puppy in the open plains.

A solitary elephant in the distance, slowly walking across the plains.  What on earth does it eat here?  And where are its herd?  We watch it for a while, fascinated by how tiny this giant creature looks against the backdrop of the crater.  Are you lonely, elephant?  How did you get here?  Did you walk from the top of the crater, somehow make it down the steep walls, and find yourself here, now unable to leave?  Or have you always been here?

I like this elephant.  At the risk of anthropomorphizing it, I dare to say that he seems content to walk his slow walk from one end of the crater to another.  Sure of himself and his steps, he gives no mind to any other creature that he passes, just continues his amble across the plains until he is finally out of sight.

We continue onwards.

We see a few warthogs very close up, and have a chance to get some really good photos.  When I first saw these creatures they appeared very ugly to me; now, I find beauty in their little faces and the way they were constructed.  Evolutionary design is fantastic.  I don't know why the pumba looks the way it does, but I admire it, despite its apparently low intelligence – our guide told us that when they are being chased by a lion or cheetah, they will run for only a few minutes and then suddenly stop, as they will have forgotten why they are running.  Short term memory.

Later on, we see another one on its knees, sniffing around at the ground and eating.  Our driver and guide pulls to a stop and explains that this is normal – the design of the creature means that it has a very short neck that can't reach the ground, so it bends its front knees in order to get at food.  Curious!

We see baboons digging in the dirt and eating insects, skillfully uncovering them and quickly using their hands to put them in their mouths.  The dusty ground is covered in these grey, fluffy baboons.  Some of them are cuddled together, grooming each other.  A baby one reaches up for its mother.  A pair of them even copulate briefly.  Something about their interactions with each other and the way they behave looks eerily human.  We're all related.

Posting photos with my words is a necessary crutch.  Photography is only a recent development in human story-telling.  When we see incredible, indescribable things in the world, we no longer have to rely on the power of our words and gestures alone.

But even so, there is power in a photograph that comes from someone you know.  My hope is that through writing and sharing my experiences along with the photos, that the lions and zebras and giraffe images are no longer abstract, far away creatures.  Accompanied by my words, the images take on life as others see the Serengeti through my eyes.  The Serengeti is no longer just my experience; the Serengeti is yours, too.  You carry a little bit of it with you now.  When you go out into the world and encounter shadow versions of these animals – zebras in a zoo, cartoon lions, plastic toy giraffes – maybe you will remember the soft brown fuzz of a baby zebra's stripes; the majesty yet skittishness of a giraffe, and the warm and cozy scene of lion cubs lying together under a tree.

I write for myself, yes – to capture my memories for the future.  But I also write for you.  To bring you somewhere you might not otherwise ever be able to go.  Call it a compulsion, or a duty, or a calling – I don't know.  Whether I ever fully accomplish it, I never truly know, either.  But here I am.
So let me bring you back into the crater.

We pull up to the first source of water we've seen down here.  The bright blue pool reflects the sky like a mirror, but the image is broken up by hippos.  Grey and round backs submerged in the pool are everywhere.  The hills around the pool are vivid green, another colour that has been almost completely absent from the crater.  The grasses and shrubs are lush from the water source, and the hippos and water buffalos are hanging out on the hills together, serenely eating the abundance of greens.  We are lucky in that we get to see a hippo fully out of the water as it eats on the hill.  It moves from one patch of grass to the other impossibly slowly – a footstep every minute?  All movement seems so laborious for hippos.

Can you see the baby?
We all stand up in our vehicles and just watch them for a long time.  We haven't had a good chance to view hippos for more than a minute at a time, so this is a treat.  A few of them slowly roll over.  One of the larger ones decides someone else is crowding its space, and it nudges him.  When that doesn't work, he opens his enormous jaws a few times.  Yikes!  Hippos are actually one of the most dangerous animals around here.  You don't want to ever go near a hippo pool.  The other one scuttles out of the way through the water.

Then, we see a small movement alongside one of them – a baby hippo!  It swims around its mother, coming to rest at her side for a while, then continues on to her backside and rests its head on her back.  Apparently, hippo babies even suckle their mother's milk under the water.  Fascinating creatures.

The entire scene felt very pre-historic.  The silence that surrounded us as we watched the buffalos and hippos peaceful co-existing in this small pocket of an oasis at the depths of a long-inactive crater was soul-soothing.  A buffalo munches grass.  A hippo rolls over.  Another one take a lumbering step further down the hill.  A buffalo and hippo stare at each other, then look away.  And us, doing nothing but watching.

Hyena eating a wildebeast skull
Life is far from peaceful in the crater, though.  As we reluctantly drove away from the hippos, we encountered more wildebeasts.  All of a sudden, we see a hyena speeding across the plains.  It is chasing two of them! We watch in awe as the chase happens in the distance, using our binoculars or zoom-lenses to see a little better.  The second wildebeast is slightly smaller than the first, but it is doing a good job of keeping up with the other one.  They hyena does not relent.  Legs pounding the ground, it keeps going at full speed.  The wildebeasts make a little headway.  They turn a different way.  It seems as if they're going to make it.  But the hyena does not give up.  It gains speed, dust flying up.  The distance between the smaller wildebeast and it is getting smaller.  And then – it's down!

And they're gone, out of sight.

Both terrifying and fascinating to watch, it's how life happens.  Knowing it is one thing, but seeing it is something else entirely.

The hippo pool
Eventually, it was time to come out of the crater – we spent over four hours there.  We reluctantly closed up our windows, pulled the roof down, and settled in for the “African massage” of the rocky steep roads all the way back up.  We climbed the winding roads and made the sharp turns at sometimes terrifying speeds – how we didn't swerve off those cliffs is beyond me.

But we emerged, weary and exhilarated.  We stopped at a viewpoint of the crater from above on the way out.  Like explorers returned from another planet, we stared out at the paths of pastel colours, now knowing what rich life they teemed with.