Holy Crap! Botswana is Real!
Note: I’ve just spent the last two weeks in rural Botswana, teaching writing classes on a creative writing safari. There was no Internet, and sometimes no electricity, both of which are useful when it comes to uploading stuff to my blog.
I did, however, have my netbook with me and wrote blog entries whenever my battery was not conked out. I’ll be uploading those blurbs over the next couple of weeks, now that I’m home in Seattle.
By Dave Fox
Somewhere in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
I am engaged to a delightful woman who has one severe flaw. Kattina likes to go camping, sometimes for weeks on end. She believes that sleeping in tents – in which you have condensation dripping on your face, centipedes crawling up your nostrils, and only two matches and a pile of wet logs to hypothetically keep you warm – is a good thing.
I am not of that ilk. I have a perfectly comfortable, urban condominium, which I pay a lot of money for. But Kattina thinks it is utterly cool that I’m working in Africa this week, sleeping in tents in rural Botswana, communing with nature and getting charged by hippopotamuses while she is back in Seattle, lavishing in the comforts of home.
My work here in Africa first sparked to life two Christmases ago in Denver, Colorado. I was hanging out with my step-brother, Bill, whom I didn’t actually know all that well at the time, at a dysfunctional family Christmas gathering. I was hanging out with Bill because (1) he has an interesting career as the owner of an African safari company, and (2) because he kept offering me beer, which one needs at dysfunctional family Christmas gatherings.
“So Bill,” I said to Bill after he had acquisitioned a fourth beer for me, “I happen to be an extremely important travel writer, and have always wanted to organize travel journaling and creative writing tours, in which I show people around exciting foreign places and teach them to write about their experiences. What would you think about partnering on such a tour in Africa?”
“I think you should have another beer,” Bill replied. “Here.”
It ended up being a pretty good dysfunctional family Christmas.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
I wondered for a moment. Botswana? It exists? People go there?
I had always thought Botswana was a fictitious place, like Oz, or Narnia, or Kalamazoo; a place with a fun-to-say name that humor writers could insert into their work as a comedic metaphor for a faraway and unreachable land. But Bill was claiming Botswana was an actual country, he had been there, and I could go there too.
“How cool!” I thought.
Here I am!
It really does exist!
I am writing this in my safari tent. It is not the kind of tent Kattina likes to sleep in. This tent is massive, approximately the same size as Kalamazoo. It has two twin beds, a paraffin lamp, a coat rack, and a set of wicker drawers in which to put my various articles of khaki-colored clothing. It is also supposed to have an emergency whistle in case a leopard tries to munch through the wall. I have been unable to locate the emergency whistle, however.
Outside my door is a fence made of reeds, which encloses a makeshift private bathroom consisting of a flushable toilet, a sink, a bar of soap, and a “bucket shower.” When I say “private,” I mean I am the only one who uses it. It does not actually offer much in the way of privacy. Part of the fence that surrounds the toilet is only three feet high, allowing me to sit and look out over a lush field of green, leafy things, and allowing hungry leopards to look in at me as I sit in a highly vulnerable position. The bucket shower? I’ll get to that in a couple of days.
A typical day here in the Okavango Delta goes something like this:
4:17 a.m. – Lie in bed with open eyes and a full bladder. Listen to the crunchy sound outside. The crunchy sound is the trees, getting stepped on by elephants. Debate whether or not it is safe to go relieve myself. Make a run for it. Get back to bed.
4:19 a.m. – Fall asleep again.
4:23 a.m. – Birds begin chirping. Loudly. Some warble. Some squawk. Some chatter. Some cluck. There is one bird that sounds like a frog, another that sounds like the annoying guy behind you in the supermarket line who won’t stop whistling the same six notes over and over. One bird is known as the “blacksmith” because its chirp resembles a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil. I don’t know if you have ever tried to sleep while somebody was banging on an anvil outside your bedroom, but unless you are fortunate enough to be deaf, this is not an easy thing to do.
I also thought I heard a bird that sounded like a ghost going “Whoooo!” but it turned out to be a hyena. Apparently, sometimes hyenas do not laugh. They haunt. They’re probably pissed at the birds for waking them up so early.
The most distinct sounding bird here is the Cape Turtle Dove. It chirps out a guttural warble with a distinct rhythm – short squawk, long squawk, short squawk, like the Morse Code letter “R.” Some people here say it’s saying “Bot-swaaa-na. Bot-swaaa-na.” Others claim the bird is saying, “Drink lager. Drink lager.” Really, bird? It’s 4:23 in the morning. The bars are closed. Leave me alone.
5:14 a.m. – Finally fall asleep again.
5:30 a.m. – A safari camp employee stands outside my tent and shouts, “Knock knock,”until I wake up.
6:03 a.m. – Get out of bed slather myself with sun screen, stuff a freshly baked muffin in my mouth, and greet my other safari mates, who, like the birds, are way too perky for six in the morning. I am working, and am therefore obliged to act perky even if I don’t feel it. They, on the other hand, are on vacation. On vacation, one normally should snooze later than 5:30 a.m., but these people are here to see the animals, who are already up and snorting, growling, grunting, or whatever else they do in their particular animal dialect.
6:30 a.m. – Depart on the day’s first game drive. In spite of the fact that the game drives start obscenely early (I mean, really, can’t the giraffes just sleep in a bit and let us do the same?) they are pretty cool. In addition to giraffes, I have seen elephants, lions, zebras, buffalo, impala, mongoose, tsesebe, wildebeest, and even a walrus! (Okay, so I think the walrus might have been a hallucination from my malaria pills. I’m not sure.)
10:30 a.m. – Return to camp for brunch. This is serious deliciousness. Omelets, bacon, sausage. I begin to wake up.
11:30 a.m. – Time for the day’s writing class. I teach my classes outside at the table where we eat our meals. This is a beautiful setting, surrounded by Acacia trees and wildflowers, and exotic species of birds who land right at our feet, totally distracting everybody from everything I am trying to teach them about travel writing.
12:30 p.m. – Free time to write, nap, or pilfer booze from the free bar. Not that I would ever do that.
3:30 p.m. – Lunch, which consists of lots of food, which is impossible to eat because I am still digesting my omelet.
4:30 p.m. – Time for another game drive. The evening game drive is better than the morning game drive because (1) it does not begin at 6:30 in the morning, and (2) it hypothetically includes a stop for a “sundowner.”
6:45 p.m. – The sundowner. This is an old and delightful safari tradition, in which people take a break from animal viewing to watch the sun go down and drink cocktails out in the bush. I mention this stop is hypothetical because sometimes wild animals ruin everything. For example, three days ago, we were all ready to start sipping adult beverages when we heard a lion roaring in the distance. Our local guide, whose name is Doctor, put the Land Rover into high gear and bounced us on an off-road rampage as thorny bushes scratched us in the face. The Land Rover, you see, is an open vehicle. It has no windows, making it easier to see the wildlife, and making it easier for the wildlife to jump inside and eat me. After a 20-minute chase, we found the lion – a majestic, 400-pound male with a bushy mane, who laid on the ground yawning while I pondered its splendor, and the fact that I was missing my gin and tonic. We watched the lion yawn for a long time, waiting for it to roar, shining a spotlight on it as darkness fell. It would not roar. So we turned the spotlight off, hoping the change in lighting might induce some roarage. We waited. And waited. It grew completely dark. I began to nod off. Yes, it is true. For a minute or two, I actually fell asleep, 30 feet away from a lion, in an unenclosed vehicle. Falling asleep this close to a lion is not recommended. But hey, I couldn’t help it. I was horribly sleep deprived. Damn birds.
After dark, the game drive continues. A local tracker, with superhuman eyesight, sits in a seat mounted on the front of the Land Rover and scans the land and sky for nocturnal animals. Animals such as spring hare, who are like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo, or owls. I like owls. Not only do they look cool, they also are awake late at night, and do not make so much damn noise early in the morning.
At 8:30, we return to camp for dinner. At 10:30, we agree that it’s getting to be bedtime. At 12:30, I go to bed, sometimes writing for an hour or so. At 4:17 the next morning, the cycle begins again.
So there you have it: a glimpse of life here in the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, which, it turns out, is not fictitious. The adventures are big. The bucket showers are warm. The people are kind. And the birds really need to keep their beaks shut, early in the morning.
Friday: The Bucket Shower
To join one of Bill’s safaris, check out his company, The Wild Source, at thewildsource.com.
If you’d like to come along on a journaling and creative writing adventure, my next tour is to southern Vietnam in October, 2010. Visit traveljournaling.com/vietnam for full details. Bill and I are also pondering another African writing safari next year. Subscribe to my free e-mail newsletter for all the latest plans.
We can also both arrange private small-group tours – Bill throughout Africa, me anywhere you want to go write. If you’d like more info, you can contact us through the above websites.