Mystery, Hope, and a Great Road Crew

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
Trip End Aug 01, 2004

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Now is as good a time as any to introduce a word or two about our camp crew. They travel in an old Mercedes diesel truck, carrying all our supplies - tents, fuel, water, food, etc. At most, only three can ride in the cab of the truck, and possibly only two. The rest ride in the back, over the dusty, bumpy, bone-jarring roads. After that they proceed to set up four large tents, complete with a freshly dug pit toilet and bucket shower in the back of each; next is a dining tent, their own tents, and a "kitchen". Then they're off to gather fire wood and generally provide a seamless transition to our next camp. Let me tell you that it's a very comforting sight after a hard day on the road to see camp all lit up, a lantern in front of each tent, a dozen or so hung around the dining tent, and a fire roaring ready to ward off the coming winter chill. We are well supported.

Folks my age should well remember Jackson Browne singing the praises of his road crew "settin' up them amps" and Jesse Colin Young's "hauling ten tons of speakers and an old Steinway Grand" (in the interest of full disclosure, when I worked with Jesse he had moved on to three guitars, an effects rack, and a Lincoln Town(e) Car). A good road crew makes it or breaks it - without them you're a guy in jeans standing in the middle of a field holding a guitar with only your mom and your girlfriend listening. Yes, all you guys going out with Sting and the Rolling Stones are good - real good. There's nothing like having 400 union employees, fueled with donuts and coffee, descending on a place with ten semi-trucks and two tour busses to get your show up...
Any one of you union guys want to come out here and dig some toilets? I didn't thing so. Five guys and one woman make it happen out here, and I wouldn't feel better supported if I were riding to Madison Square Garden in a limo (and why I'd be doing that is another question). The point is that this is one crack safari crew.

Camp was nearly struck by the time we left the Khwai River yesterday. We climbed aboard the trucks around seven to game drive until late morning before moving onto our next camp here at the Savute Marsh in Chobe National Park. The crew for Alwyn's truck consisted of Jayne, Nancy, Dan, and I.

Our final game drive along the Khwai River offered a dizzying mixture of lion, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, hyena, hippo, jackal... It was as if everyone was coming out to say goodbye. The floodplain spread out like a stage, all the players acting out their drama, creating an overarching story that opened a small window into the workings of the natural world for observing humans still a little awe-struck from the night before. I kept going back to the notion I was taught in basic college physics of the how the observer alters the observed (during the brief period that my basic college physics course dealt with the unwieldy subject of quantum mechanics - all of it fascinating and only marginally understandable.) It doesn't take a theoretical physicist to tell you that a consistent flow of humans, no matter how well meaning, rambling through the bush in large vehicles will have an effect on what is observed. We Americans generally sit fat and happy at the pinnacle of the food chain. It's a good idea to at least know what it is we're sitting on top of; to know what is threatened from existence by a perhaps brief age of human domination. So Jayne and I find ourselves ten thousand miles from home, observing, learning, and much better off for the experience. I hope that my presence here is a positive thing overall. No doubt for me it is, but for others as well, and for the animals and environment that we've come to experience. Spending time with Alwyn and Stanley gives me hope that my belief is well founded. They love the land and being in it. They do this for a living. Providing an economic incentive to protect the wilderness is the best way to save it, at least in the short run. There will always be people coming through here; this is right about where people started to "be" anywhere, as our distant cousins, lost in the fog of prehistory, gingerly dropped down from the trees and started walking around on two feet. Bringing people through armed with cameras instead of guns seems the best one can hope for. Being a tree-hugger from northern California requires that I feel slightly guilty for the privilege of flying halfway around the world to experience a distant and exotic locale. I do this very well. I come here anyway, thank God.

The morning sun climbed its way up into the sky, the air warmed, and it was time to move on toward the Savute Marsh. The final prompt was a call on the radio from Barnes, the camp crew manager, informing Alwyn that they were leaving Moremi and heading toward our next campsite, thus giving the crew a slight head start. This and the time in the afternoon that we'd spend game driving upon our arrival in Savute was their total allotted time get ahead of us and set up camp - about three hours in my estimation, maybe less.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What about that road from Moremi to Chobe?

A tattered wooden sign nailed to an acacia tree saying "Main Road" with an arrow pointing straight up. A rutted track cut through the bush, sometimes with sand so deep that it brought to mind driving a four-wheel drive high in the Colorado Rockies in the dead of winter; only this was sand and we are in Africa (though it is the dead of winter).

It was about a five hour drive, including lunch, before arriving on the Savute and then proceeding with a two and-a-half hour game drive. The merciless road beat you down, made you dig within yourself to keep from slobbering all over your shirt, your head jerking forward in a fit of microsleep - Always, Alwyn drove on...

It would have been much worse had we not stopped under the only tree for miles around big enough to shade our two vehicles, the ten of us, and our lunch table next to a shrinking pan of water in the middle of the open savannah. One well scouted tree by our intrepid guides, I suspect.

After a fine lunch enjoyed under the big acacia tree, followed by a short walk around the pan to stretch our legs, we were off again, through the sand, toward our new camp.

Once we officially arrived on the Savute, Alwyn stopped and we piled out to reconnect with solid ground and reintroduce our legs to the idea of walking. That, a cold drink, and for some a walk behind a bush, and we were off, this time in "game drive" mode.

The hard road had taken its toll. Young Dan became quiet and, sitting next to me in the seat behind Alwyn, was looking a little sullen. When asked by his mother if we were losing him for the rest of the day, he freely admitted that we were indeed. Shortly thereafter the binoculars that he was holding in his hand dropped on the floor of the truck between us, a faraway look in his eyes. For myself, I do admit looking forward to the luxury of a relatively private pit toilet. If you ever find yourself taking running hot and cold water for granted, I'd suggest that you stop and give a little nod of gratitude for the simple things in life.

But the African road taketh away (tough, jarring desert tracks), and the African bush givith back (incomparable landscape). That this place was once under water is absolutely not in evidence now. The landscape is what I've always imagined an African Savannah would look like. Flat, low scrub brush, tall grass gently waving in the late afternoon breeze, with scattered trees - beautiful, austere, and eminently photographable - punctuating the wide open land. There isn't a whole lot of water here now, but as recently as 1980, this area was indeed a marsh and mostly underwater. As things go in this part of the world, the water moved somewhere else. Since then, three manmade pans are fed with pumped well water to support wildlife - and the tourism it attracts. The observer affecting the observed.

By the time we slid into camp over the sand covered road, the fire was roaring and the hot water for my bucket shower was waiting. Damn if we didn't keep running around in the wilderness and all the sudden there was camp.

Stepping out of the truck that had massaged my butt all day long, a wave of gratitude washed over me - Camp! Tent #2! Home!
With a sudden surge of energy, Dan challenged me to a chess game. With a sudden desire to wash up, I deferred the challenge until later.

By the time we emerged from our tents, the Southern Cross shown through the wisps of smoke rising up from the campfire. I settled into the warmth with my obligatory and much appreciated glass of Chardonnay. It's a tough life out here - but maybe one I could get used to.

The lack of a permanent source of water was a change from Moremi and the delta. As a consequence, there is the concern that hyenas will come into camp and bite into the bottom of our canvas washbasins in search of water. We've been instructed to dump the water out and leave the basins overturned - and are happy to oblige. To my knowledge, no hyena approached our tent, though I have to admit that I slept remarkably well last night, not once requiring a visit to the lamp-lit stillness behind the tent at 2am.

We were out on the game drive before sunrise, the eastern sky tinged with the crimson light of the approaching sun. Everyone agreed that this was the coldest morning yet, dipping down to the lower thirties, but it was worth it to witness the sunrise over the savannah. If you have to get up early on a cold morning it's very gratifying to be welcomed by a big, orange rising sun, radiating warmth and light. There is a primal, remnant fear that the sun will go away and never come back. And a corresponding primordial sense of relief when the rays once again reach down and bathe the world in daylight. Everything else is ordered around the rising and the setting of the sun.

The morning was unusually breezy and cool (as if being in Africa for a little over a week would give me any sense of "usual"). The highlight for the morning was a pride of six lionesses keeping tabs on a distant herd of giraffe - all rather nonchalantly, as lionesses do. Soon it was late morning and time for everyone to take a nap, so we left the pride sprawled languidly in the shade of a bush, and headed back to camp. The warming sun and the motion of the Land Cruiser made me drowsy, and the conversation turned to elephant facts. Among them are that they spend eighteen hours a day eating up to three hundred pounds of, well... African bush. They sometimes sleep only twenty minutes a day. Can you imagine? Less than seven hours and I'm grouchy. I show up for work on Sunday morning at Grace Cathedral on four and-a-half hours, and somehow I manage. But twenty minutes? Come on, get real, do you expect me to believe that?

That's probably why the poor guy taking a nap behind a tree next to the track we were following out of camp for the afternoon game drive was so cranky with us when we inadvertently awakened him from those few precious moments of sleep. The sound of an elephant being rudely awakened is a loud, resonant and sustained wail. Much like that of many a trumpet heard in high school jazz band. Only a lot better. We heard him before we saw him, and we didn't mean to awaken him, of course. We stopped and slowly backed up to wait for him to make his next move. Best to let an elephant have his twenty minutes undisturbed.

But the real show for me this afternoon was the trees, the wide open land, and the big, blue sky. Barb and I discovered our mutual love of taking pictures of trees (fellow tree-hugger!) and so Alwyn provided us with ample opportunity to try and capture the angular shapes and stark isolation of trees on the savannah.

The evening game drive ended with Alwyn stopping in the middle of the Savute and allowing us to disperse from the truck to watch the sun set and disappear into the horizon. Wildebeest and impala grazing in the distance were silhouettes on the darkening sky, a light breeze stirred the air, and night settled in.

It was dark as we made our way back to camp. Suddenly I saw a flash in the headlights as Alwyn made a quick corrective move. I thought to myself, "Was that an elephant's butt I just saw?" Alwyn mumbled something about almost hitting something, and a second later the unmistakable scolding of a startled elephant trumpeted through the air. It is my hope that it wasn't the same elephant we upset on the way out. The observer affecting the observed indeed!

The wind has picked up tonight, making it difficult to keep the lanterns lit at dinner, and bringing a chill that beckons the warmth of my cot, complete with a hot water bottle at the foot, and a chocolate on the pillow. It was never like this when I was Boy Scout.
Jayne and I have decided to see if we can book an extra night at Victoria Falls instead of laying over in Johannesburg. Why we'd want to spent a night at a layover hotel just outside the airport is a bit of a mystery, and it seems as if that could have been presented as an option.

Not that I'm complaining.

Tomorrow we will move on to the Chobe River, our last bush camp before Vic Falls. The end of our journey is approaching.

But for now I sit out on the African savannah listening to the wind whip the tent and watch flickering light of the lantern outside. Soon I'll be straining to remember this moment, so I'd better just lie still and soak it up. The moon is now near full, and the ghostly light makes the landscape luminescent; drenched in mystery and hope, much like the feeling while watching the quelea. Mystery in the quiet workings of nature, and hope that the sun will rise once again tomorrow.

In case I haven't yet made it clear - I love it out here.

I will report in next from the Chobe River.
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