June 1 - 19 2001 / Namibia: African Circle Part 1
Red dunes, a cornucopia of splendid animals, and a landscape to infinity.
June 17 Etosha Park to Okonjima Lodge
new animals seen:
So today we left Etosha park, I have in my mind’s eye the high white sky and lone tree and the elegant waterhole of the pan. As we drove away there was a sweet, sweet smell of grains in the air.
It’s a tar road all the way now, no more dirt roads or dust. We drive at 72 miles an hour all the way. At the exit of the park, we stop briefly and there are a few little carvings for sale, among them a handsome largish guinea fowl, that handsome striped and spotted animal I loved so much when I saw it briefly last time. On an impulse—I will probably never see Etosha or the white pan again—I buy it. I’ll take it home with me and have it to remember the white pan and the clear high sky, and the giraffe at full gallop over the road.
Here’s a town, with houses and stuff, very strange to see after what our eyes have been filled with the last many days. At a truck stop we buy Cadbury chocolate bars and eat them right down. There are guys hanging around, I think for the entertainment value of the thing. We all eat apples and are relaxed; it’s all easy from now on.
There are billboards for skin cream, Pepsi, sugar, cigarettes (“Tobacco is addictive”).
We slow for a banded mongoose crossing the road, but it seems to be just him, instead of the whole tribe of them that lived just outside the lodge gate, and which went home in thousands of videos in the last few months, no doubt.
And so here we arrive at our last stop, a lodge at 6,000 feet, surrounded by a private game reserve. Our little rondavel is nice, with interesting furnishings and appointments, but it is unfortunately infested horribly by a sudden invasion of stinkbugs, which apparently has just arrived in the last few days.
After a fine lunch we are whisked off to the leopard watch, a place in the rocks where they put out meat and the leopards, which are here for “rehabilitation” and eventual return to the wild, are accustomed to come eat it. There is a hide behind which we can all sit to watch. On the way to the hide we are told that if we see one of the leopard cubs—there are two—by the side of the trail just to keep on walking and not to stop, since mother may be in the vicinity. And most wonderfully, there is a young leopard, about ten feet from me as I walk along, standing on some rocks, looking at us walking by. My pulse rises and I breathe shallowly.
The meat is put out as we are instructed in proper behavior. There are comfortable chairs, and beanbags on which to rest one’s photographic equipment. There is to be absolute silence. And there is, even the noisy woman is silent. The leopard cubs come, and there is a flurry of snaps and clicks and whirs and tinks and clunks as they are captured to take home. Immortalized, these few moments in their little lives.
There is a bit of a set-to as one cub chases off the other. When they pause from eating, and look up, look around, their eyes, those golden eyes, appear to look right at us. I am amazed that all these people can keep so silent.
Whoops! Here comes an enterprising mongoose, darts in from stage left, grabs a chunk of meat, and not even bothering to turn around, smartly hauls it off into the bushes..
The light falls, and first red light, then spotlight, is shone on the eating and wary animals. At length mother appears; she is wearing a radio collar with antenna, and even though it’s ugly and funny-looking, she is not. The cubs leave and she eats what they are too small to eat: the bones. The great crunching of her jaws is clearly heard by all. She eats and crunches and looks about. Then she hops silently up to a rock shelf, washes a bit, tends to personal hygiene, and takes her ease. We are beginning to wonder how long we will stay. Are we going to be trapped by leopards in this hide? Still all are silent. But at length, after about an hour and a half, we pack up quietly and go home.
The cubs’ bellies were round with meat.
So we all have our dinner, which is quite good, and off we go now to see the feeding of the animals at the night hide. Again, food is put down, we sit silently behind a barrier, and lights are turned on. It is porcupines! Enormous, beautiful porcupines! Five of them. Their arrays of quills are fanned out like giant brown and cream flowers, or bursts of enormous fireworks. They slurp up the vegetable leftovers from lunch and dinner, eagerly and noisily. They move slowly and majestically even though they are porcupines. I never thought I would see such a thing. A jackal passes through, but not the caracal that had been hoped.
I am somewhat stunned by these porcupines. It’s as if they are wearing huge costumes, of some kind of ritual dance, or some kind of exotic Eastern armour.
Even the most inconsequential animal seems of consequence here—the ground squirrels, the mongooses, the turtle, a frog we saw yesterday. Well, each is indeed of consequence, in its own sphere, its own place in its universe.
June 18 A day at Okonjima Lodge
new animals seen:
Bat of some kind
We rise before the sun and go to the lion-viewing terrace, where there is coffee and food and three lions in the landscape. They have been raised since babyhood by people here, and they come each morning, "for greeting,” one man tells me, to greet their human friends. Their looks are sublime, and Venus and a crescent moon shine above them. The whole scene, the yellow land, the yellow lions with their brown manes, the sleeky heavens, all remind me of Rousseau paintings with their stylized forms and colors.
After this little breakfast, we are taken on The Bushman Trail. There is no hint of what this is going to be, but it turns out to be wonderful. A young white man, Dax, and a black man, Edward, lead us along a red trail first to one and then another small opening under trees, with logs to sit on. Here they show and tell us about different aspects of the Bushman's way of living. How the shells of ostrich are used to hold water, first having been cleaned out by ants, then perhaps buried in sand with only a tiny hole and a kind of straw sticking up above ground, to be uncorked and drunk up right from this cooling place under ground.. The men cannot carry the water eggs because when they’re only partly full, they might slosh and thus make too much noise for the hunt.
Beads, for necklaces and ornaments, are made from ostrich shells too, using a kudu horn to break off bits of shell until the desired roundness is achieved, then poking a hole with the tip of an arrow. Then they are strung, and polished to a fine smoothness by a bit of rock and stick. Most cleverly. Some are passed around; the pieces of jewelry are heavy and significant.
Dax explains how the grass house was not used to live in, but to hold objects so they would be safe from animals. Property was shared, food was shared, water was shared, all was shared. The bushman believed that after death he returned as an animal, and then as a bushman, and so one was only changing form, not leaving the world.
He shows us rattles and finger instruments, and we all try them out. He shows us toys meant to train the hand and eye, and to ornament.
We move to another place down the trail a bit, and the black man, who is not a bushman, makes rope for us, from the thick stem of an aloe to a finely-made piece of rope, using a stick and his thigh. He is deft and spare in his motions and everybody watches in deep silence and attention.
At another place, we are shown traps, one for porcupine, one for birds. I get to set off the one for birds. It is amazingly powerful! It's not some wimpy thing, but a strong, decisive, surprising and quick YANK of my hand. I am sobered by this powerful craft.
At the last stop they make fire for us. Out of a couple of sticks, a bit of sand, a bird nest, and some small dry grassy twigs. It only takes a few minutes. The white man holds the sandy stick with a hole in it, the black man twirls another stick in the hole, over and over. Shortly a wisp of smoke rises from the bird nest wrapped around the rubbing stick, the black man blows and blows and the smoke thickens, the white man holds the twigs at the ready and the bird nest turns the twigs into fire.
We are silent for a moment. How basic a requirement for the race of humans, fire. The start of all our technology, all that we think we are now. From this stick and bird nest to the moon, to the sun, to the universe beyond, and within to the tiniest reaches of our bodies and the mysteries of the microscopic world, all begun with sticks and a dry small bird nest.
The young man Dax is a fine interpreter, and I tell him so and offer to send him some books. At lunch I learn that actually his field is the maintenance and understanding of the ecosystem here, but he has spent two months living with the bushmen, and now does this bit of interpretation of their spare and economical ways. He speaks of them with the deepest respect, and I wonder what his life will become, for he is only in school and the work he does here is to fulfil part of his degree requirements. How lucky he is to have found a thing to do that he loves so early in his life.
In the afternoon after a brunch thing (accompanied by a pet warthog), we take a walk through an acacia woods, where we see monarch butterflies, a fine dung beetle, great big warthog holes, termite mounds, and the red dirt. It's a pleasant time, but I am ready for this to be over.
This afternoon we are to see cheetah; these are animals that are here for rehabilitation. It will be my only chance to see a cheetah, so I don't care how they come to us.
This journal is not very good, but I am doing the best I can. John is taking lots of video, and I am taking pictures. There will be a lot of stories from this trip, but I don't know how well I have captured any of them!
So in the afternoon we set off for the cheetah feeding experience. We had not driven more than a few feet out of the front gate when our driver stopped. Hello, he says, what's this, and there's a snake in the road just below my seat. He hops out, taking his stick. It's a puff adder, he announces. It's poisonous, deadly. It's short and stout and flattish, with a triangular head. He nudges it along with the stick until it leaves the road and goes, rather disturbingly I felt, into the grass.
Then we are off again. This lodge is associated with, in some way I don't quite understand, with an outfit called Africat. They rehabilitate cats, mostly cheetahs and leopards, to try to return them to the wild, and they also have what he calls animal welfare cases, which can only be cared for but not returned to the wild. So the cheetahs we are about to see fed are welfare cases; there are four or five of them. Before we enter the gated area of the cheetahs (a huge area, as far as the eye can see, not a pen or anything like that), he explains. There is a big metal bowl of meat, which will be on the hood of the open vehicle (one of our party is sitting in the front seat, the rest of us are on tiered benches above the driver's level). The cats will come and leap up on the hood and take the meat. But we're not to worry, they won't hurt us. He says.
Edward, the black man who demonstrated the bushman arts this morning, rides with us on the hood; he is there to help with the whole procedure and to be sure that one of the cheetahs, who has only three legs, is not harassed by the others and gets his share of the meat.
So in we go, and sure enough, within a few minutes John says, Here they come--and I look down the road and here come two animals racing at full speed right towards us. They come to a halt, leap up on the hood of the car, grab their meat, and hop down again to carry it off in to the brush to eat. It's all over in a few seconds, so fast I can't even take a picture! It's awesome. We drive down the road a bit more, and here come the other two, full tilt down the road and straight for us. They stop, our guide chirrups at one, who hops up on the hood and politely waits to be given bits of meat while our guide points out its markings and structure and talks nicely to it. The cheetah watches him closely to see when the next bit of meat is coming, and allows touching and petting--of course I am riven with jealousy!
The cheetah waits in a mannerly fashion until all the meat is gone, then hops down. I have pictures with a cheetah head filling the viewfinder! They are so beautiful, and even though it is a strange experience, I feel privileged to be able to be so close to such a gorgeous wild creature. They feed them twice a day in this way.
We are told about the work the Africat people try to do, to get farmers to let them come and fetch cats that are predating on their farms, and take them away for relocation. But it's an uphill battle. We invite these farmers to the Africat office for coffee and to see the cats, we're told. But they are very suspicious of anything that doesn't involve killing them. If it can be shown that the cats have a money value, they will be protected, the guide says. I learned in one of my classes about reasons to protect and conserve the natural world. The most basic one, the rock bottom one, is that it is the moral and correct thing to do. But that is hard if you are a farmer and the cheetah eats your goats that you were planning to eat or sell or get milk from.
Edward rides back silently on the vehicle hood. He is unsmiling in his work role. I ask our guide about him later. Edward has worked there for five years, doing the bushman skills, and working with the cheetahs, and we've been having him learn to do some driving, but there's a language problem, I'm told.
It is painful and puzzling to us to see these black people, who are supposed to be the owners of this land, in these subservient and unchallenging roles. They have been told to smile at us when greeting us, and they do, but otherwise they go about their work unsmiling. I saw a woman in the 3-month old Harare airport, in which we were the only passengers, pushing a mop around a sparkling clean floor, up and down, back and forth. I couldn't help thinking of what we were taught about the bushman crafts and arts, how clever one had to be to figure them out and employ them, of the Himba women making their ornaments and grinding their ochre and making their implements, how clever all these things are, and how alert one must be to plan and employ them, and how vacant the life of someone whose work is to sit all day in an empty airport hoping to rent a cellphone to somebody, or pushing a mop on a clean floor. White people would be "lazy" if they had been dislocated in the same ways. Danie told us that the country is 90% black and 10% white. We saw only the 10% and wonder where the rest of the folks are, besides serving us in the hotels. Of course, the population density here is about two people per square kilometer, compared with twenty-nine in the same space at home. But still…
Anyway, at least Edward has some fairly interesting things to do. Keeping a couple of full-grown hungry cheetahs at bay with a little striped stick would keep one's mind alert.
We go for a longish walk in the bush with an earnest young fellow who is also doing his 6-month practicum for his degree. He is sweet and soft-spoken but knows less than it appears. One interesting thing he does show us: there is an invasive bush, the sickle tree, which has taken over large amounts of grassland. It must be dug up by the roots to eradicate it. Now I realize there are piles of dead uprooted sickle tree all around, since this land is carefully managed. It reminds me of our brush piles at the Audubon sanctuary where I work, where glossy buckthorn has been pulled up by the roots to make room for the native plants.
On the walk we see lots of butterflies. I learn from the young man that the African Monarch (which looks like ours only in coloration) also feeds here upon a milkweed (similar to but not ours), and absorbs its poisons to render it unpalatable. Now that's interesting. So did--are ours and these descended from the same animal/plant? It certainly can't be convergent evolution. Is the milkweed a plant of Gondwanaland?
And, for that matter, how come there are leguminous plants here, with pea-like flowers and compound leaves, just like at home?
After the cheetah experience (I sure wish I had a movie of that cheetah galloping at top speed straight for us!), we are told we'll be taken to a viewpoint for a few drinks, sundowners they call them here. There is a bit of grumbling, some would rather see the cheetahs some more, but I like these little parties. At the appointed place we hop out of the vehicle and are told to follow Edward. I am walking behind him, he stops abruptly, looks intently to the right and points with his stick. "Hare," he says. I miss it, but I love it that he knows to try to show us, and the name in English.
We continue up the little hill to where the sunset awaits, and there at the top, on the edge of the escarpment, are Danie and Vincent and a candlelit spread of drinks and goodies, with flowers and napkins to boot, and chairs for viewing the sunset. Much delight among all. Danie chortles with delight, and Vincent beams. Edward stands off to one side, on a slight rise, with his stick, surveying the scene. I gesture if I may take his picture, and he nods graciously, and smiles for me, gives a thumbs up in response to my gestured thanks. Later I see someone has brought him a can of drink.
We drive back to the lodge in the dusk, and see a final oryx, with one horn, and raise a flock of guinea fowl, which then settled in a small tree, silhouetted against the pink and violet sky.
A Brit group has arrived, and they are to go to the night hide this evening, and I get to join them. John passes this up to star-gaze, taking advantage of the astonishing black skies.
This time our little group walks to the hide, instead of driving, and as soon as we are outside the gates the deep night rises overhead, and the stars and the Milky Way are an extravagant spray of jewels tossed on black velvet. Our guide shines his light off to the right, and there's a hare, and I get to see him this time, running off.
At the hide, waiting for the guide is one of the radio-collared caracal cats he has mentioned--but as he goes to put meat for it in the feeding tree, the caracal crouches and snarls, and he drops the meat piece, which the caracal snatches up and trots off with. OK, I figure, that's the view I'm gonna get of a caracal. He spreads out the lunch leftovers as before, and we all settle in silence to wait.
We wait and wait. A bat flies through, and I add it silently to the animal list.
We wait some more, and then suddenly there is the caracal up the tree, looking for more. Finding none, it jumps silently down and prowls around the area, sniffing and moving stealthily. As it exits a jackal wanders through, in his alert and business-like way, and then here is a porcupine, and another, and one more. I hear the Brits’ intake of breath to see something so heavily ornamented as this animal, with its great fan of quills erect.
After a bit, here comes the caracal again, smelling that there is food. It approaches the noisily-feeding porcupines cautiously, moves among them, and hisses. They ignore him completely. He hisses again, louder. No response. Again. Nothing. Embarrassed, the caracal exits stage right, and the porcupines continue munching.
The guide shines a light up on the rise behind the tree, he has spotted something. I look with my trusty binoculars, and see some ears and a buff-colored body. Is it the other caracal? Then it is time to go. The guide tells me it was a duiker, one of the tiny antelopes we did not see. So in this short time I've added four animals to my list: hare, bat, caracal, duiker.
Back at the lodge, our room is still infested with the horrible stinkbugs. They are everywhere and we sleep under the nets to avoid having them in the beds with us. Apparently it's kind of an invasion, and there's nothing to be done about them. But I don't like having to share my bed and my bathroom with stinkbugs, that you can't even squash but have to carry in a bit of toilet paper to the toilet to flush. Ugh.
Once again I have a strange dream of a huge house, empty for the most part I think, but something huge. I have had three different dreams like this since we have been here. I'm not sure what they are about. We have learned that Namibia has about 1.7 million people in the whole country, and they are spread out all over it, there being no large cities to speak of. I keep thinking too about the evocative name "The Empty Quarter" given to a part of some desert I forget which one. We have driven for many hours on this trip and seen no people. In an empty space there is room to expand, to think new things, to expand to fill it in your mind, to invent new things,. There is also space to keep silent, to wait, to observe and meditate upon what is in front of one. To see only what is in front of one, and that a long long space, to the horizon. Of what use is emptiness? One can fill it or simply experience it, be a part of it.
John asks if I have said anything about how Danie and Vincent speak to each other in Afrikaans, to other people in it, and how we are floating on a sea of it, and can't understand it. I kind of like that. It reminds me of when I was a tour director and my driver Dave and I would share little in-jokes that the passengers didn't know about. I'm glad for them to have this private communication, and because they are so nice to all of us, I don't care what they might be saying otherwise. But it's a strange thing, that the black people are speaking a white language. Danie and Vincent do not speak any black languages. The 10% and the 90%.
6/19 our last day in Namibia. Okonjima Lodge to Harare, Zimbabwe
I have been getting up before dawn each day and this day is no exception. I dress and wash quickly, avoiding the stinkbugs as best I can, and come out into the fine morning. At the Lion Lapa, the terrace overlooking the lions' visiting area, I have hot coffee and chat a bit with a Brit woman who is also there, about the coming eclipse, and the lions, and all. The lions appear, the two males' manes glowing in the new sunlight. A couple more Brit ladies gather round as I go on about the eclipse, how to use the welder's glass, and whatever. A few more people arrive, including some of ours. Paul, who with his wife Joan are the best of the lot, are there, and Paul gives me a wonderful compliment. "I can see you really are a teacher," he says, "You looked so happy, teaching those women. I wish I'd had a teacher like you." Tears start in my eyes and I thank him for this recognition of my most important self.
Too soon we pile into the open-topped vehicle, our bags in another, and drive a few minutes to the little grass airstrip, where our small charter plane will meet us. It arrives, pulls up smartly, and out hops a cute young pilot in shorts, looking just about old enough to shave. We squeeze into our seats, after hugging Vincent goodbye, and at liftoff the last animals we see are a pair of jackals, watching us alertly as always.
As I always do in small planes, I love seeing the landscape from up here, snuggled close to John, making our own little island of illusionary safety, and comfort.
After an hour we land just short of the border with Botswana, and in an empty building go through the brief formalities of leaving Namibia.
In bed in these early mornings, when I waken about 4 am, I have been spending an hour in re-collection of images: the white pure pan, the red satin dunes, the galloping giraffe--or taking a virtual re-tour of Australia, or of Alaska or Belize, or Hawaii, or even Papua New Guinea--an encyclopedia of images of places to which I can return at any time. The Mara. Kenya and Tanzania seemed more African to us because we were surrounded by black people, who seemed much more a part of this landscape than the white people. I liked being here on their terms rather than white terms I am sure I have this all wrong, but that is how it looks and feels.
After this brief stop, we take off again, as easily as a small bird, and fly over the desert for another couple of hours, to land this time in Botswana for refueling and the bathroom. We mill about restlessly, with nothing to do but wait. Christian our boy pilot is chatting with the guys pumping fuel, and finally comes in to tell us that as soon as the helicopter which has landed by the fuel pumps and departs, we can be off. It does and we are.
We fly over a town. I see a scummy river below in which are people bathing, washing, walking along, and there are animals in the water. There are square houses with tin roofs. The shadow of our plane courses the landscape of sparse woodland. The horizon is milky blue and perfectly flat. Lines of roads appear and disappear below, seeming not to go anywhere, but which must connect the people to something of importance to them.
We cross the wide mown border with Zimbabwe. Almost immediately signs of prosperity appear--farms, larger buildings, round irrigated swathes. Little settlements, some towns. Fires whose smoke rises to a certain level and then collects and flattens out along an invisible ceiling.
Finally we land in Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe. Once again we are the only passengers in the airport, which this time is enormous and appears brand new, built and opened yesterday afternoon perhaps. Turns out three months ago. There are little kiosks renting telephones, and a branch of the bank, and a bar area, all deserted except for their smartly turned out tenders, who are all black and very spiff.
The meet and greets are white, though, and at length we load onto a large bus and are joined by the other Namibia group, who has been going on our trip only in the opposite direction. They are older than all of us, and cranky. We have made not very kind jokes about them ever since we found out about them oh, surely a few months ago.
At the hotel, we meet a couple of people who were on the Turkey eclipse with us, on the boat on the Turquoise Coast trip, and that is pleasant, and we have dinner, and I clean everything up including myself, and we sleep, this time without lions, or stinkbugs, on the tenth floor of a very new hotel, in the middle of Africa nonetheless