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Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Nat Geo Special

Trigger warning: This post is both very long and excruciatingly dull. Travel writing is something best left to experts. I am not one.

[This trip happened nearly a year ago. Letting that amount of time elapse will have done the story no good whatsoever. Although it has given me a greater appreciation for those pocket notebooks that real writers carry with them where ever they go.]

Ironically, I never particularly had the goal of getting around. Traveling — meh. Yet somehow that thing that I don't care much whether I do keeps happening. I have been across the US by car or bus 31 times, lived in a couple dozen places across the US, as well as England twice and now Germany. Some of that is side effect: travel is going to come with the military pilot territory. But the rest I, through long chains of very improbable circumstance, happened upon: my wife, whose love of travel rivals that of fire for gasoline, and FedEx, which is a gasoline gusher.

TOSWIPIAW had already been to Africa three times, and decided my none times could no longer stand. Besides, we were already in Europe, which is right next door [not really, not where we were going, but her instinctive feel for maps doesn't deviate from the breed standard; besides, her traveling gland was painfully swollen.]

Since we already had favorable experiences with Overseas Adventure Travel (Antarctica (me), Costa Rica, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos) we decided to fatten their bottom line once again. They do small group — 12 to 16 people — expeditions, and get off the beaten path. The downside, for me anyway, is their NPR tone, and way too much participation in the local. I loathe them for their staginess, forced familiarity, heavy handed suggestions for donations, and eating guinea pig (Machu Picchu).

For the record, my wife thinks me a misanthrope. I think she is leaping, okay half-stepping, to a conclusion.

To be there, we had to get there. While the trip is no longer admirable feat, Johannesberg, South Africa is about as far away from Germany as it is possible to be from anyone place to any other place and still stay on the planet.

Making matters far worse was Heathrow security. Perceptive minds may be flashing question marks here. Knowing I live in Germany, those very same perceptive minds quickly realize that I had to get through security in order to get to Heathrow.

Yes, indeed that is true. And absolutely no barrier to that full employment scheme for petty tyrants known as airport security. (Donald Trump has made a lot of mileage on immigration; why he hasn't thought to aim his verbal scattergun at the TSA is a singular mystery. Loathing of the TSA, which does a necessary job about as badly as it is possible to imagine, and then even worse, is universal. Hillary! wouldn't stand a chance.)

Ten minute security line in Düsseldorf. Hour flight to Heathrow. Hour and twenty minutes getting re-securitied, which gave me plenty of time to observe passive-aggressiveness in action. The screeners concern for people missing flights was amply confirmed by their glacial pace. If there was ever a group of people that needed punching good, hard and often, this was them.

Which is why our two hour layover was rescued from being 20 minutes too short by a twenty minute late departure. Even after passage of a year, my blood goes right to the boiling point just thinking about it.

(Side note. Last week I went through screening in Cologne. A screener deemed my clear plastic bag too big — never mind the very sparse contents thereof and sent me off to get another bag, and the back of the line. Finally making it through, the same screener, now at the X-ray machine, deemed my travel size can of shaving cream a suspect nuclear weapon. I stand for a few minutes while they get an explosives swabber, who swabs my stuff and tells me to wait. No surprise there. While waiting, I put my laptop and iPad back in their respective places. He comes back to tell me I'm good to go, then gets indignant: where were my computers?! And started in to giving me a sound lecture, only to come to a quick stop. Might have had something to do with murder in my eyes. Every time Harry extols how wonderful socialism is, all I have to do is recall airport security. A few days ago in Keflavik, I had a 3.07 oz deodorant applicator confiscated because it exceeded the 3 oz limit. Just like it had done dozens of times before. And despite the easily ascertainable fact — the applicator being transparent — it was very nearly empty. Hillary!, The Donald, here's a pro-tip. Want to be president? Stop talking about Syria and start talking about the TSA.)

Aaaannnnddd twelve and a half hours in an A380 later, we are in Jo-berg, with a day and a half to kill before heading off into the bush. The first half day we put to excellent use, hanging around the hotel pool and having a contest as to see who could run up the biggest bar bill.

The next day was entirely different. We hired a local guide to give us The Tour. I'm old enough to remember apartheid, and to also think that was a pretty mean thing for the government to be doing.

Pretty mean doesn't begin to say it. Despite having had a current events knowledge back in the day, there is nothing like seeing it in person, even nearly 30 years removed. The institutionalized awfulness was crushingly pervasive, and mostly left me with this question: what the hell were they thinking? I get the trap that is so easy to fall into — judging our forebears by our standards. But still. Did none of the Afrikaners think "What if we got this wrong?"

The next morning started the main program: 21 days, divided pretty equally among four bush locations, plus a stop at Victoria Falls and then Cape Town.

First stop, the Jackalberry Lodge in the Thornybush Game Reserve.

Let me translate that into English: Four star glamping in the African answer to a dude ranch.

Our subsequent accommodations were far more spartan — no air conditioning.

Perhaps that isn't enough detail. Twenty-odd years ago, some enterprising people fenced off roughly 400 square miles of South African savannah, then, with some degree of forethought, stocked it with roughly the right amount of the right kinds of animals to provide a roughly self-sustaining answer to the Wild Kingdom safari park.

The place was so big that there was never the impression of being inside it. Except for the very stout electric fence that surrounded our compound.

Note the stanchion on the left supporting the electric fence separating TOSWIPIAW from Very Large Animals.

This fence, surrounding the entire compound, except for where it met a lodge at the far side, was very effective at keeping predators out, less so with elephants who, fortunately, didn't want in, and not at all against the various variants on the impala who simply leapt the thing to get at the salad bar within.

So it was something of a surprise coming out of the, ummm, glent? — in the morning in search of coffee, only to round a corner and be confronted with a half dozen animals the size of elk built like gazelles and crowned with very twisty horns. Perhaps my murderous gaze was sufficient to convince them they were in a very dangerous place indeed, between me and my first cup of coffee. Or it might have been pure coincidence.

Either way, I got my coffee.

As it happened the glent we were in stopped the gap between the ends of our electric fortification. And it had a back porch that opened onto the savannah. We were warned, in a suitably stern and forthright manner that so long as we stayed on the porch, we were OK. But beyond that lie monsters.

I took them at their word.

Later that afternoon, I was in our glent, and heard some rustling about. Poked my head out and saw this:

Mind you, I never strayed from the porch. Nonetheless, I got yelled at. Not entirely sure what I did wrong, but frightening the elephant probably wasn't high on the list.

The next day started what was pretty much the routine for then next 16 days. Get up early, park our glamping butts in a couple Toyota land cruisers and spend four hours bouncing over perfectly horrid roads hoping for Sightings. At about the halfway mark we'd stop for coffee and a snack. Repeat in the late afternoon, only with adult beverages instead of coffee. The driver and guide were conspicuously well armed. Something to do with predators, apparently.

Ready to head 'em up and move 'em out. Harry, trigger warning: the tan case contains a high powered rifle.

Whereupon we see things:

Lions on a union break.

And elephants who want our trail more than we do.

There's a bit of a story here. The guides are very strict about protocol. The animals can't, or don't, distinguish between the Land Cruiser and the people in it. So long as we sit down and shut up we are just a — something — to these creatures that isn't the least bit relevant to their daily lives.

So when that big ol' elephant came up, we did as instructed: sat on our hands, and kept our lips zipped. Well, it just kept coming at us, until it used the left rear corner of our Land Cruiser as a sratching post. That happened to be where TOSWIPIAW was sitting, and she had to practically climb into my lap to avoid coming very much eye to eye with the elephant's eye. Since, for some reason, TOSWIPIAW had a death grip on our camera, I couldn't get the video.

My wife didn't get yelled at.

On our evening drive, we learned that it is all fun and games until …

And so on, for another couple weeks. The glaring suspicion should be, I should know, because it kept occurring to me, was that eight hours a day on spine crunching roads might get a bit repetitious.

The companies that run these trips aren't staffed by fools. They know that full well, and right at the point where repetition is starting to rear its ugly head, they hauled us off, by bush plane, to the next glamp where the same routine was very different.

In that spirit, let's move on to … Chobe National Park in Botswana. This glamp marked a change from our first stop. Instead of walled and air conditioned lodgings, surrounded by wires carrying very many of Edison's very best volts, we had soft sided A-Frames and not heck all of a fence.

The consequence being that, after dark, we were not allowed to move from the common area to our glents without an armed escort. Something about predators. Along those lines, we got some instructions, among them being: "If you have an emergency, give three blasts with the air horn on your nightstand, and turn on your porch light. Everyone else, stay in your glents and keep the lights off."

Emergency equipment, flanked by industrial strength bug stuff. We quickly found the best approach was to leave the light on, then go all fire hose on it.

Seemed sound advice, as we were unpacking that mid-afternoon. Not five minutes later: BLAT BLAT BLAT from the next glent over.


Our group of 15 included two women traveling by themselves. One of them saw a spider in her bathroom. To be fair, spider might not begin to say it:

It was near as darnnit to hot, but separated from miserable by a admirable lack of humidity. Starting around 10 pm, I saw lightning on the horizon, and suspected we might be in for a show. Sure enough, two hours later the temperature started dropping like a greased safe. And that can only mean one thing: lots of meteorological sturm and drang. The wind, conveniently aligned, was blowing rain right into our glent.

Being Mr. Man, it was up to me to go outside and figure out how to make that stop. Despite the darkness, I found the lashings that released the drop down covers.

And came back in to find a millipede the size of Clovis's forearm crawling down the mosquito netting on TOSWIPIAW's side of the bed.

This is not an insignificant problem, because I have to break the news without getting deafened by an air horn. Having managed that task, made far easier by TOSWIPIAW being a very steady hand, I then had to be Mr. Man again and get the thing out. A trash can — the sure sign of glamping — was at hand, so I slid it up and dislodged the millipede into the can.

Where it landed with a prodigious thump, before getting unceremoniously launched into the aforementioned sturm and drang. Which had, by this time, been even more dranged by a pride of lions not a hundred yards away expressing their displeasure with the lightning (I presume it wasn't the millipede).

I could go on, but not profitably. Pictures at this point will say far more, and annoy you far less, than anything I could write.

Save for a few parting shots.

Once upon a time ago, I read The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

The accident of natural circumstances can't be ignored. The southern third of Africa — an area a good chunk as large as the continental US — has no meaningful natural barriers, no navigable rivers, the tsetse fly, and malaria. If the entire world was like that, civilization would never have happened.

Oh yeah, and one other thing. Nature's great insecticide: winter. I'm not bug phobic, but after having been concussed for the third time by an onrushing dung beetle (imagine an iridescent VW Beetle — the original one — with wings, and an iridescent paint job, but bigger) I was starting to get my fill of things that were at least six times larger than they should have been. Most of the women were on the verge of going spare.

The night after our fun with weather, and its rain, we got treated to the ground termites and their airborne mating ritual. In their billions. These things are the size of your thumb, and come in the kind of swarms that belong in nightmares.

Except they don't bite, nor much care for anything else than their regenerative part in the circle of life. The next morning, they are have all gone to ground, leaving only piles of wings behind. Those, that is, that haven't been captured by the locals, to be boiled and eaten as a delicacy the next day.

Having a sensitive palate, I declined, since they couldn't possibly go with gin & tonic.

Our tour leader was a native Zimbabwean. He went into great detail about Mugabe's rule. Yes, Ayn Rand was a wretched writer, but she was on to something.

He mentioned, without my asking, Bret, that family sizes had plummeted during his lifetime, from more than 6 to right around 3.

25% of children have lost both parents to AIDS.

Our only real experience with Africa outside the bush came in Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. That place is properly poor. I'd far rather be there than in the late stage Soviet Union.

Going out on a limb here, but I don't see fried caterpillars having the same market making power as, say, McDonald's french fries.

Capitalism is an amazing thing. It provided people the means with which to start significant businesses — setting up and provisioning a glamp in the bush is no mean feat. It makes people want to please others, and others appreciative of being pleased.

For the most part, the scenery in southern Africa is quite monotonous. So flat that rivers peter out before they get anywhere, and trees that rarely get more than a dozen feet tall before elephants flatten them. Cape Town was entirely different, as abundantly blessed in scenic pulchritude as the surrounding millions of square miles are deprived.

Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go back? Ummm. Probably not. I can see where Africa, and the people, could get under someone's skin.

But not mine. Probably.


Bret said...

My wife went to South Africa a couple of months ago and she loved it. She didn't seem to have the same level of insect infestations as you though.

Hey Skipper said...

It wasn't as bad as it could have been. We were there at the end of the dry season, so almost no mosquitos, and darn few tsetse flys.

But ... at least further north, there are bugs that are far, far larger than bugs should ever be.

Clovis e Adri said...

Saved this one for a slow afternoon with a good cup of coffee. It was worth it.

I get to see the flying termites show every year down here. The problem is, if you don't keep your windows shut, you get hundreds of them at your home - and your wood furniture ruined later on, as you learn its chemical treatment doesn't always work.