We’re on a 12-seater Cessna now, on our way from Camp Xakanaxa, where we spent three lovely days, to our next stop, the name of which I cannot remember.
TS, our guide at Camp X [Note from 2020: I’m not going to spell it out] is tall, thin and handsome, with dark black skin and a broad smile. He tells people his name stands for True Story, because he only speaks truth. At other times, he says the name stands for other things. He has a dry sense of humor. He is passionate about being a guide, with a deep knowledge of nature and a strong drive to take us to see the most interesting animals and birds. He finds them by listening to their calls, driving slowly while hanging his head off the side of the truck to watch the ground for leopard or lion tracks, by consulting with other guides on radio, and apparently by extra sensory perception. When he hears over the radio that the other guides have found some fascinating animal, he throws the truck in gear and we careen across the road, bouncing high in the air. A few times I’m completely airborne above my seat. He usually doesn’t say what he’s after, but I know that when we’re moving at that speed it’s something good. Yesterday it was a leopard, which we could barely see when we arrived. That’s just how it goes; game drives are a lot of patience and luck.
TS is opinionated about which animals are worth stopping for – lions, leopards, elephants and giraffes – although elephants are less interesting than leopards, so we do not stop to see elephants on the way to a leopard. I love baboons and monkeys but TS thinks they are a waste of time so we do not stop to see the monkeys. That’s ok; we’ve seen plenty of monkeys anyway.
TS tells us he comes from a small farming village in Botswana, with 35 brothers and sisters from multiple mothers. Many people in the village were unschooled and illiterate; they believe book learning is a waste of time, compared with learning what they need to know for farming.
TS sat next to a group of Italians during lunch, and asked them how to say hello in Italian. Later, after I asked him, he said everybody he knows growing up came from that one little village. Now he meets people from all over the world. The world is an amazing place.
As I thumb-type this, we are in a small 12-seater Cessna, with those same Italians, on our way to the next stop for three days. We loved Camp X and felt a connection to the place and staff there but I’ll be glad to sleep indoors. And wake up indoors too. The tents at CX get cold at night and in the early morning when we get up for our dawn game drive. They give us hot water bottles after dinner, one each, which we carry to our tent in our arms and tuck under the blankets. And the blankets are lovely and warm and the sheets are clean and white. It’s quite cozy – despite how cold it is outside, 40 degrees, I still find myself throwing the blankets partway off during the night.
But it is most definitely not warm when we wake up.
And it’s dark at night too; camp power is provided by a generator and some of the tent lighting runs on batteries. The generator goes off around 10 and goes back on a little before wake up.
The food at Camp X is fantastic. [Note from 2020: True for all our camps.] I’m going to need bigger pants. Meals are served in a big tent; we eat at big long wooden dining tables and real chairs, with china and linen tablecloths and napkins and separate glasses for wine and water, like a restaurant. We serve ourselves from buffet tables and talk with the other guests and guides, who eat with the guests, about what we saw and did that day, although we did get into a brisk political discussion with a few Germans one night. I would have preferred to talk about the game drives. Political discussion is one of the things I’m getting away from.
The German who talked politics asked me, the next night, about my work. I had resolved that for the duration of this trip I would not volunteer what I do for a living, but would tell people when asked. So I did. I think next time I’ll make something up, like “Mafia accountant” or “large animal veterinarian.”
I’m thumb typing this on a 12 seat plane from Camp X to our next stop. 50 minute flight. We just swerved abruptly and I was overcome by vertigo and I closed my eyes. Julie said she saw another plane that we had swerved to avoid
Landing now. I’ll put away my phone.
And now we are at the Leroo La Tau Lodge, still in Botswana, this time on the desert. It’s 1:26 pm, we checked in, got our orientation talk from the manager, and had another enormous and delicious lunch. I brought two sets of pants, one for cooler weather and one for warmer weather. I should have brought bigger pants too.
LLT is designed along the same lines as CX, with huts with thatched roofs. But LLT is a complex of buildings, rather than tents on platforms. We’re told to expect cooler weather here.
This is the Kalahari Desert. Coming in on our 12-seater plane – Clement was our pilot again – we saw small villages of huts and cattle and goats penned in with rough fences, called kraals. On the dirt road to the camp – more bouncy bouncy in one of the ubiquitous converted Toyota trucks – we saw a truck going in the opposite direction, with a middle aged white couple in the cab. The woman, in the passenger seat, had a small dog on her lap. It occurred to me that this was the first time we’d seen animal who was a pet,in a week.
CX and Chobe Lodge were surrounded by electrical wire fences, high enough to stop elephants but let other animals through. We saw baboons on the lawn in front of our cabin in Chobe. A resident hippo wanders around CX, his name is Oscar. We saw him just outside the camp when TS drove us in to the camp on our first day; TS cautioned us that Oscar is not domesticated, he is a wild animal, and hippos are vicious too, and can move fast when provoked, we should stay 30-40 meters away. Not sure how you can do that in the camp, but it was a moot point; we did not see Oscar again.
When we drove up to CX, two managers greeted us with a big smile and a goofy dance. A short time ago that would have made me uncomfortable; I would have assumed it was a residue of colonialism and racism. Now I think it’s just how they do things. One of the managers was a tall, handsome, erect young man named Mox, with deep black skin and a broad smile. Unlike his colleagues, Mox spoke in a British-inflected accent; he told us later that he was educated in a private track in a public school and – he confessed – has an English girlfriend. (“Shocking,” I said, and he was surprised that I said it, but Julie explained that I was kidding. I said it with a deadpan that any American would have recognized I meant the opposite of what I was saying, but that inflection doesn’t translate. We told him that we have absolutely no problem with mixed-race relationships.)
But we did not know any of that when we were checking in. I saw him as another native member of the hotel staff, who likely spent his entire life in Botswana. So I was surprised when he said, as he picked up our bags to carry them off, “Alright alright alright!” Surprising to meet a Matthew McConaughey fan so far from home!
I’ve been thinking here about the legacy of colonialism. At home I had a vague, unarticulated idea that colonialism was unalloyed evil and that it had left a false skin on African culture that would inevitably be sloughed off as colonialism receded in the past. While I’m still no fan of colonialism, I now think the Africans regard the colonial legacy as part of their heritage, just as much as their native roots, and are in no rush to slough off European influences, any more than the English are looking to rid themselves of Roman and Norman influences. In general I have encountered similar attitudes when dealing with people in the developing world. In past decades we worried about American cultural imperialism, but people who live in the developing world seem happy to take what pleases them or is useful from American and European culture, and retain their native traditions where those are pleasing or useful. This also applies to China, which can’t be described as a member of the developing world anymore; it’s a superpower rivaling America, maybe soon to surpass us. [Note from 2020: I’m not certain I agree with my 2019 assessment of geopolitics here and post-colonial culture. I’d only been Africa a week when I wrote it, and less than four weeks total.]
Last night at CK I woke up in the middle of the night and heard animals calling nearby. I turned over in bed in the dark and saw, on the canvas wall of our tent, the shadow of a vast animal moving slowly by. I turned over and went back to sleep.
This evening as we were washing for dinner we heard the sound of two male elephants nearby disagreeing loudly.