The animals here are still suffering from decades of poaching, we were told repeatedly. So many endangered species are still being replenished. Our wildlife are still fearful of humans and tend to hide more than in Tanzania and Kenya, it was further explained. After all, the government has only recently been devoted to protecting the wildlife. And if that wasn’t enough deterrent, we were going out in the heat of the afternoon sun and surely all the animals would be hiding out in cooler domains.

And so began our first game drive in Murchison Falls National Park in southeastern Uganda as part of an ElderTreks Tour, which promotes “Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50 and Over.”

Immediately as we entered the park, a handsome water buck sprinted across the road followed by an assortment of other antelopes and a number of elephants standing around oblivious to the clicking of cameras around them. Shortly thereafter, we were immersed in baboons, cape buffalo, giraffes, warthogs and the occasional hyena.
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I don’t know if the lowering of expectations was intentional but its effect was to electrify everyone in the van who oohed and ahhed at the sheer numbers of animals we encountered and led to the exclamation of one experienced safari-goer to declare, “This is the best safari ever.”

Enhancing the trip even more was the lack of multiple vehicles taking up prime real estate in which to view the animals. Twenty vehicles a day versus the dozens found in Kenya and Tanzania, though our guide, Hamm, predicted that eventually Uganda would catch up. “Well, it’s kind of nice to be a pioneer,” observed Nancy Burnett from Seattle, WA.

And unlike other safaris I’ve been on, in Uganda the game drives are by land and water. On one along the Nile River in Murchison Falls, our guide proudly announced that there were 450 different species of birds but after he pointed out the first few, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh god, we still have 446 to go.” I’m obviously not a birder. However, of the animals he mentioned we might see -– baboons, hippos, elephants, crocodiles and buffaloes — we saw them all. And that included, to the extreme joy of everyone on board, the elusive shoebill, of which only 8 pairs exist in the park, who preened and posed at great length for the cameras.

We took a short walk off the boat onto savannah grasslands where we sprinted between numerous piles of assorted dung and footprints, which were alternately identified as coming from hippos, elephants, lions and water bucks. No actual animal sightings but I did sense they were all lurking nearby. Still pretty heady stuff.

On a second boat trip along a different part of the Nile, we saw more land animals than on the first river trip and better even than some safaris: baboons, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs, cape buffalo and antelopes all by the water’s edge.
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Initially, I could only see only the tiny ears of the hippos peeking above the water until a big splash announced the arrival of another 6000 pounds into view. You don’t want to mess with a hippo! And I’ve seen crocodiles in the past but usually had to rely upon a guide to identify the snout sticking out of the water. Not here. We saw multiple full-length crocs soaking up the sun on shore and staying around long enough for photos before slithering away into the river. These were very obliging animals.

The Kazinga Channel Cruise in Mweya brought us into contact with the highest population of hippos in Uganda, plus of course their standard neighbors: more buffaloes, elephants, crocs and the de rigueur abundance of birds. We were all gaping at a particular family of elephants — or Ellies as they are more affectionately called — with a baby of mere months so small you could practically take him home and put him on a display shelf.
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Oblivious to this unusual occurrence, the one birder in the group was staring in the other direction, waxing enthusiastically about the black-winged stilt in his sight. When teased about not even seeing the ellies, he deadpanned: “If elephants could fly, then I’d notice them.” Such is life with a birder… But by the end of the trip, even I could recognize a common black and white kingfisher!

Right in front of the elephants were the barely submerged tips of hippo ears and I cringed at the thought of what one elephant misstep might do to them until I remembered the multi-ton enormity of the animal attached to them. I suspect the ellies purposely step gingerly. Back on land in Queen Elizabeth National Park, cape buffalo were happily wallowing in mud which acts as both sun protection and insect repellant.
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Considered one of the most aggressive and feared of the African mammals, I figured that maybe it was compensating for its very ugly demeanor. The warthog, however, another resident not known for its good looks, clearly does not have the same compensatory good fortune. I figure it’s just too ugly for any animal to even want to eat.
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We also saw staggering numbers of antelopes, literally thousands of them of all sizes and shapes, each type with its distinctive, lovely shaped and colored horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy. The list goes on as far as the antelope can run.
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Plus hundreds of giraffes and elephants and a multitude of all the other usual suspects. Still the greedy passengers in the van continued to clamor for lions — or at least one leopard in a tree. By this time we had become so jaded, it was “Oh don’t bother getting up, it’s just another dozen elephants.”

We did spend a lot of time on several drives scouting the terrain in furtive attempts to spot the big cats. Hamm, our guide, was feeling increasingly frustrated, protesting that over 90% of the time, lions are seen.

At one point a line of cob antelope standing in quiet attention all looking to the right alerted us to the possible presence of our desired prey -– good for us; bad for the cobs. After a while, the cobs reverted back to grazing dashing our hopes in the process: good for the cobs; bad for us. Eventually, we did track the small family of three cats to a large cluster of bushes from which a flicker of face or twitch of tail emerged, but the rest of their bodies eluded us. As if worried we were getting too close, papa lion suddenly ran out from the bush to divert our attention. There he stood, a short distance away, very elegant and stately and full of pride, so to speak, mesmerizing every inhabitant of the van — with the possible exception of the birder. When we pulled away, he sauntered at a leisurely pace back into the bush, confident his family was no longer in danger. Hamm breathed a very audible sigh of relief.
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The next day, it was a fresh kill nearby that caught our attention. Bright red blood still flowed from the poor dead Topi as did much of his intestines. But the exact nature of the alleged predator confounded our guide: Not the lions, they would have finished off the meat; the topi was too big for a leopard to have brought him down. Footprints near the kill suggested the culprit might be an hyena but Hamm insisted he would still be there feasting. As we drove away, Hamm kept shaking his head as he further pondered the mystery.

Later that afternoon, we returned to the site of the kill only to find it had been pulled into a bush from which the devoured head and leg were still visible. Only a leopard would have done that, Hamm concluded. Mystery solved!
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Observed Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge, CA: “The ElderTreks Uganda trip offers the most diverse scenery and wildlife than any other country in Africa.”

And for those still seeking more animal sightings to add to their list, a trip to Lake Mburo National Park adds zebras, elands and the ever-graceful impalas to the count. Gorilla-trekking and chimp-tracking were another awesome part of the tour but are separate stories in their own right.

And it wasn’t all animals all the time. We also visited a small tribal village that was a US Agency for International Development model of conservation, environmental and wildlife protection, and hygienic efforts successfully implemented in the most primitive of settings. An incredibly impressive accomplishment! Plus other cultural exposures including a traditional medicine man, a modern hospital, a local school and a meeting with members of an ancient Pygmy tribe.
Don’t even think about coming on this trip if you have any kind of neck or back injury. There is barely a moment spent in the van in which you are not literally bouncing up and down and lurching side to side.

Outside of our accommodations, Western toilets are rarely available; squatting in the bush or over a hole is a useful skill to develop.

If you’re overly attached to electricity, whether for light or a hair dryer, you might reconsider the trip. Bring a book light for reading at night and leave your vanity at home.

Showers were available at all the lodges, just not necessarily in the manner to which you are accustomed.

Except for maybe caveat #1, none of these should deter you from the trip; just make you better prepared for it.

The endangered white rhino. The elusive silverback mountain gorilla. The rare tree-climbing lion. Hippos, elephants, crocodiles. The massive shoebill? Yup, him, too. These are just a few of the multitude of wildlife we cavorted with during our ElderTreks’s safari and trekking journey to southwestern Uganda. But the visit to the Kibale Chimpanzee National Forest to see the ever-playful chimps in the wild was one of the more delightful surprises.
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A quick briefing introduced us to the chimps said to share 98.7% of their DNA with us humans. 98.7! Already feeling an affinity, we split into smaller groups with an assigned guide carrying her assigned rifle. Were our relatives in danger? It seems elephants and buffalo also roam these grounds and are more aggressive than those seen on game drives where the animals are more accustomed to people in vehicles. The guides, we were assured, shoot the rifles only if necessary to scare them away.

Also armed, so to speak, with a number of rules governing our outing, we were told to stay 25 feet away, if lucky enough to find them on low-lying branches, to be quiet so that the guides can listen to the calls and not to mimic the sounds of the chimps — as if that were even possible — because you don’t know what you might be saying. I couldn’t help but think the chimp would probably turn down a date if I made the mistake of coming on to him.
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Finally we took off through very dense forest. Lots of tweets and trills, whistles and warbles, cries and caws produced a symphony of sound which accompanied our walk. I knew our guide recognized every note and was thankful she didn’t feel compelled to share all that information with us. I’m pretty sure the resident bird watcher in our group would have preferred otherwise.

Our tracker did point out a variety of monkeys in the trees above but they were so high as to be indistinguishable from the leaves unless the branch was moving — and then, of course, it was already too late. Clearly, I would not make a good tracker — or birder.
The troop of chimpanzees we were tracking numbered 120 but because it was the end of September, our guide lamented that the chimps were harder to find because much of their nearby food supply had been exhausted. You might want to check ahead of time to see when the fig trees are bearing the most fruit — that apparently determines how many chimps you’re likely to see.

Due to this added challenge, we were diverging from the more standard trails and were pretty much blazing new paths. It had been over an hour and we were no closer to finding chimps. I, on the other hand, was more worried we’d never find our way back.
The guide, unfazed, claimed to have found our sought-after prey though those of us less technically proficient in chimp tracking could not yet see any. Still, ten pairs of eyes looked eagerly toward the tree tops, seeming miles away, to catch some movement, any movement, to justify our presence. Suddenly a cry of “There he is” erupted, quickly followed by a disappointed sigh of “Maybe not.”

And then an ear-splitting onslaught of a barking/howling/ screeching shriek indicated that yes, in fact, they were around. This gave us all hope but still, without any precise sightings. However, the periodic wailings breaking out in every direction were so loud and disconcerting as to be sufficiently exciting in themselves. When all of a sudden two chimps scrambled past within several feet of our group, we knew we had arrived. “Now that’s more like it,” someone declared!
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We literally followed in their footsteps through the bush to find what our guide later insisted was a rare occurrence: an 18-year-old adolescent lying upon the ground in apparent repose, head resting on hand, taking time out to occasionally scratch and snort, totally ignoring our large semi-circle of astonished gawkers. We all forgot how frustrated we had been just moments before. Watching this young lad — whom the guide identified as Enfunzi — so close up did make me question a bit that 98.7 DNA statistic. Not that we don’t scratch…
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Although our overall excursion took three hours, a number of very satisfied “wows” punctuated its end. And I was wrong about the tracker — she did indeed know the way back! And if seeing the chimps in the wild only whetted your appetite for a little more chimp exposure, an hour-long boat ride to the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary near Entebbe just might do the trick. Home to 48 chimps rescued from a multitude of adverse conditions, whether as orphans, victims of illegal activities, or needy of medical attention, these guys roam free on 95% of the 95-acre forest. The other 5% is devoted to feeding the chimps and keeping them safe at night.
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Our approach to view their 2 p.m. feeding was vociferously announced by loud guttural screeches, either as a chimp welcoming committee or an entreaty to leave — it was hard to tell. As it turns out, the greeting wasn’t for us at all but for the large alpha male approaching from the opposite direction. I was relieved we had not been the ones to elicit such a thunderous response. Okay, you’re not seeing them in the wild exactly but you’re seeing a lot more a lot more openly — and they are indeed fun to watch. In between eagerly devouring their lunch of carrots, oranges and pineapples, they scratched themselves and each other, chased each other around, fought over food and generally entertained their human luncheon guests.
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Another rowdy fracas erupted when a larger chimp stole food from a smaller companion who loudly called out to his friends for reinforcement — and they rapidly responded forcing the perpetrator to relent and give back the food. Hey, they’re just like people.
As soon as the guys had ingested a sufficient amount of munchables, they headed back to the forest to play, gambol about, climb the branches or rest free of human intrusion. And we got to leave with new respect for our closely aligned cousins with whom we share so much DNA – except, of course, for all that scratching… For more information, visit eldertreks.com which promotes “Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50 and Over.”

Gabon is arguably the most bio-diverse country in all of Africa. Just above the equator on the Atlantic Ocean, Gabon is the size of New Jersey, with a population of just over 3 million people. Since it was a French territory, almost all the people speak that language. Gabon is a very rich country, as most of the land is forest, or at least was until Omar Bongo, the former president, leased logging rights to the Chinese. Gabon also has lots of offshore oil, with rigs dotting the horizon in every direction. This does not seem to bother the hippos, who swim uninhibited in the rolling salt water waves.
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A Bai, as pictured in the photographs below, is a large clearing in the forest where elephants, gorillas, monkey’s, deer and many other wild life species come to drink and socialize. There are no lions or leopards in Gabon, but that aside, wildlife abounds in numbers that are staggering to comprehend. The gorillas are lowland gorillas and smaller than their mountain brethren in Rwanda and Uganda, and the elephants are forest elephants, which are smaller than their savannah cousins.
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In 2001 to 2003, Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientific biologist, did a mega-transact from Congo to the coast in Gabon. Mike had the world class photographer Nick Nichols, of National Geographic magazine with him on many parts of the 3,376 mile trek across central Africa, spanning 13 months in the process. Upon completing the transact, Mike met with president Bongo and showed him some of Nick’s amazing photographs. Bongo was in awe and asked, “This is my country?” Mike convinced Bongo to take away logging licenses from many of the Chinese crews, and declared 13 national parks, which are still in existence today.
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Gabon is not without problems. Because of the rich natural resources, the Gabonese people have become lazy and it is difficult to motivate them to work even for good pay. Elephant poaching is a huge problem, but Mike and other stalwart people from the Wildlife Conservation Society are making real progress in quelling the poaching. Much more needs to be done, as the Chinese craving for ivory is placing these magnificent beasts in real trouble. If you drive along the mostly crude roads in Gabon, you will see the carcasses of dead a animals, or their skins. The Gabonese have a lively and profitable bush meat trade, and will kill almost anything to eat themselves or sell at market.
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The problems aside, Gabon is truly a magnificent place, not easy to get to, but getting better. Rumor has it the Aman Resorts has signed a contract to build a native looking hotel in Gabon, and that will surely increase the tourist trade. This is a place to visit sooner rather than later. Once people go there, and the word spreads, it will be like going to Krueger National park in South Africa.
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Our trip started in New York on the next to last day of September. Thirteen hours to Dubai with a three hour layover and then five hours to Nairobi where we were met by private charter and flown to Siriko1, an incredibly beautiful camp on the Lewa Conservancy. Lewa was originally a 100,000 acre farm owned by the Craig family, and was turned into a wild animal conservancy by Ian Craig. Through Ian’s efforts, many endangered black and white rhino have been saved and now prosper at Lewa. This park is guarded by rangers who were former poachers, converted by Ian who demonstrated that through eco-tourism, a live animal is worth far more than a dead one. I woke the first morning, lifted my head, and out of the tent saw a small herd of elephants grazing and drinking at the water hole. They were joined by water bucks, impala, cape buffalo, wart hogs and a recued cheetah named Sheba who delighted in trying t o spook the animals. Our first night was punctuated by the sounds of rhino fighting on the lawn outside our tent, hippos grazing in the same area, and a lone leopard stalking smaller prey.
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Our next camp was Sarara, set in Samburu country. The Samburu are cousins of the Masai, and our guides were all Samburu warriors and experts in spotting wild animals in the Bush. We saw “The Big Five”, lions, leopards, rhino, elephants and buffalo at Sarara, but the most special treat was dinner under the stars while we watched a family of fourteen elephants come into a clearing below to drink.
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They were no more than 50 yards away, a distance that would later seem miles away compared to our next camp called Elephant Watch. This camp is run by the world famous Ian and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who have spent the past forty years looking after and studying thousands of elephants.
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They and their incredible guides have named the many different families for mountains, artists, royals and rivers, and know almost all the members of each family by name. One morning we set out with a picnic lunch at the river. When we arrived “The Royal Family” awaited us. There were at least thirty elephants, bulls, females, and young elephants suckling their mothers. They recognized the car and the guides by smell, and were not the least bit threatened by our appearance. We got out of the car, usually a big no-no when around any wild elephants, and had our lunch. As we sat there with a cool breeze in our faces, three other families passed by and went into the river to drink. On our way out of the area, one big bull came right up to my side of the car, and raised his trunk to sniff the inhabitants. His trunk came no more than six inches from my face! To say this experience was thrilling would be a gross understatement.
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The Flamingo pictures were taken by Dr. William Conway, a former CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a world famous environmentalist/conservationis.

We ended our trip at Samatian Island, a small, beautiful place on Lake Boringa in the middle of the famous Rift Valley. Here we saw thousands upon thousands of birds, including the over three million flamingoes on a nearby lake. We saw eagles, hippos and crocodiles, and were very sad when we had to leave. In all it took us twenty-seven hours to get home. Tired, jet-lagged, but unbelievable thrilled by our experience.
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That morning in Botswana played out as if it was a tightly-edited film sequence. Our group of five was in a Range Rover on a rough dirt road. Our guides, Dix and Simon, from Mapula Camp, were out on the road examining fresh lion footprints. They figured lions were close by and decided to look further.

We drove on. Suddenly we spotted two large male lions. The guides were familiar with these two and said they were brothers out hunting. They were living away from their pride, Dix said, because they were more than likely not ready to challenge the older dominant leader.

When we came close, they were starting to cross a pond, all the while ignoring us, some 10 yards away. We followed, our Rover going unfazed through the tall brush. All of a sudden, the brothers came upon a flock of Egyptian geese, and we saw one snatch a goose from the air with lion claws.

He calmly sat down, proceeding to eat it. The other looked on – the bird evidently was too small to share. After a half-hour, he finished his snack, and the two went on with us behind. Up ahead, beyond the lions, we spotted a herd of zebras. Around 30 yards from the herd, the two stopped behind a bush, intensely observing them.

Meanwhile, four giraffes approached from the right. Immediately, one lion began moving toward the herd from the back. The zebras seemed distracted by the giraffes. This gave the lion the moment needed to attack from behind.

In a split second, we saw a big zebra attempt furiously to shake the lion off his back. The brother rushed in, and the two subdued and killed their prey – but not without the zebra struggling valiantly. We observed transfixed – both excited and appalled by the carnage.
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Kalahari Desert Camp

My wife and I had arrived in Botswana five days earlier and were flown by a small airplane to our first destination, Kalahari Desert Camp. This was to be followed by stays at Delta Camp and Mapula.

Our Kalahari visit started auspiciously when, during our landing, a Cheetah loped down the runway in pursuit of an oryx – a good omen for things to come.
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The Kalahari is unlike most deserts. There are trees, scrub brush and tall grass. There is not much water to see, but water holes exist throughout.

There was no “roughing it” in our tent camp. It contained the comforts of home, as did all accommodations during our Botswana stay. At Kalahari the rooms featured an outdoor bath; bathing in the evening while looking at a galaxy of stars was a memorable experience.
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According to our guide, Shaka, because this park is not heavily visited, the wildlife is somewhat shy. It takes sleuthing to find animals, and he was a good detective. First day he found a leopard in a tree, apparently surveying the horizon for prey. We parked a few yards away. We observed him for nearly an hour, following his movement from branch to branch. Finally, he must have spotted something when he sprang to the ground running, disappearing in the brush.
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With this sighting, we had seen two of the three big cats in less than two days. (The lions were to come later in the week.) On our Kalahari drives, we encountered herds of wildebeests, impala, kudu, springbok, as we would in all the spots we visited. Africa is also a birders’ paradise. Everyday we saw an array of colorful birds and fowl – rollers, kingfishers, secretary birds, spoonbills, and the list goes on.
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Going back to camp that first evening we caught a sight of a rare aardwolf, which elated Shaka, who had never seen one. It was an intriguing animal, bigger than a fox with a heavy multi-colored coat.

During our second afternoon, Shaka took us to the remains of an ancient Bushmen camp. These native people, nomadic hunter-gatherers, have lived in the Kalahari for 20,000 years. In modern times most have been moved to cities and government settlements in central Kalahari. For centuries they moved about, staying in igloo-shaped huts made from local materials – the frame bent branches, the roof thatched with long grass. All that is left are weathered frames.
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Bushmen and the Kalahari itself became well-publicized in the internationally popular 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It dealt with a Bushman who found a Coke bottle in the middle of the desert and thought it must be an omen from the gods.

Our stay here was short, but quite comfortable. Our tent was large, with two beds and all the amenities one needs. At 5:30 a.m., Shaka would wake us so we’d have time for a light breakfast at 6 before heading out on our morning game drive. Returning at 11, we were served brunch, consisting of eggs, salads, freshly baked breads and an entree. At 4 p.m., we were served a light snack to keep us from getting hungry while on the evening drive. Dinner was waiting when we returned several hours later. This daily routine would be much the same at all three camps. The food was always hearty and quite good.

 

Okavango Delta Camp

Next day we were flown to Delta Camp in the Okavango Delta for our next two days. It is the world’s largest inland delta, formed where the Okavango River empties onto a swamp in an enclosed basin in the Northern Kalahari. Most of this water is lost to evaporation and transpiration instead of draining into a sea. We found this one of the most beautiful spots in the world – water everywhere, intensely green marshes with water lilies, flowers and reeds, small lakes and tree-filled islands.
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All this vegetation nurtures an abundance of wildlife. In front of the lodge, hippopatamuses grazed in the shallows among tall grass and came on shore to feed at night. We fell asleep listening to their guttural purrs as they munched. Throughout the day, elephants could be seen, usually looming in the distance but sometimes near camp.
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At the camp, we were taken on “game drives” in dug-out canoes (makoros). As our guide, TJ, poled us through the narrow waterways, he was always wary of getting too close to the hippos, particularly mothers with calves. Easily perturbed, they were ready to charge.
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Each day, we went to one of many small islands for a hike – but not before TJ instructed us about what to do if we encountered a lion; we never saw one here. We often saw impalas and kudus, but most delightful was time spent with a mother warthog and her three progeny. The family ignored us, and we observed that their domestic dynamics was much like “home.” One offspring was a young piglet; the other two were adolescents. When mother turned her back to graze, the older ones would begin picking on the younger. When mother became aware of this, she would turn and angrily chase the trouble-makers away.
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One afternoon, we were taken for a visit via makoro to a local village where a posse of dogs met us. I asked TJ if they were vulnerable to wild predators. He answered that, on the contrary, they protected the village people by barking at intruders. Here, houses were ingeniously made from termite hills, reportedly much stronger than cement. When pulverized and mixed with water, the material was used for the walls. About a third way up, beverage cans were inserted symmetrically in rows at the bottom. The open can end was turned inside for ventilation. It worked well, TJ said, and a wonderful way to recycle.

Delta Camp had one of the nicest lodges with a first class wine selection – on the house – and gourmet dinners. This camp was more luxurious, although still very basic. Our cabin had walls, but all window spaces were open, allowing the cool breeze and animal calls to flow through. Our “picture window” opened onto a large marsh where elephants enjoyed dining. On to Mapula for our final three days.

 

Mapula Camp – Moremi Game Reserve

We returned to the kill site the next morning. The lions were still taking turns eating. One would eat, get his fill, then go a few feet to a pond for a drink and a rest under a tree. The other would take over for his share.

In the surrounding trees, buzzards gathered, waiting for the rotting remains. Hyenas had come over night to steal some meat, Dix said, but he could see by their prints that they had been driven off. Packs of Hyenas are notorious for snatching parts of kills from lionesses but were scared of the much larger males and could be easily driven away. In this case they would have to wait for bones to pick.
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We had been in Africa before, in Kenya and Tanzania, and had seen most all the animals but had never seen a “kill.” In fact, Dix said that this was his first after four years of guiding. I guess our group was very fortunate.
The Moremi Game Reserve covers much of the eastern side of the Okavango Delta. It borders Chobe National Park and combines permanent water, with drier, heavily wooded areas, an excellent environment for all types of game The Range Rovers were great for traversing this terrain, equally viable plowing through three-feet deep water or crushing through heavy growth.
During our three days here, we saw families of elephants drifting by and herds of ostriches loping along. A great interlude was a show given us by a large assembly of about 100 baboons – youngsters leaping through branches (sometimes missing and crashing into tree trunks). Mothers showed off their babies; sisters groomed each other, and male potentates sat by sternly observing the proceedings.
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Everyday at Mapula we looked forward to Sundowners and the spectacular sunset. On afternoon game drives, the Rovers pulled up about 6:30 when the sun was low on the horizon. Dix and Simon would open a cooler and serve our drink of choice, along with munchies. We would stretch our legs and take in the endless sky, watching the setting sun painting the clouds with swathes of gorgeous color.

A good cocktail spot was beside a pond where two hippos were leisurely lolling in the water. Voicing his disapproval of our invading his privacy, the bull opened his jaw wide and bellowed (a great photo opportunity for those quick with the camera).The best place, though, was our last evening in Botswana. It was near the lion kill. The fiery sundown framed a large acacia tree, and we could see vultures silhouetted in the branches patiently awaiting their share – part of the circle of life in Africa.
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I told myself ahead of time I would not stare. Even though the bare breasts hung low and large, my eyes instead went to the large, intricate metal jewelry adorning their necks, wrists and ankles. I was believed that what might have been an embarrassing focus became only a gloss-over glance.

Viewing a live nude show in Vegas? Not quite. Instead, this was my introduction to the beautiful bodies and gentle lifestyle of the Himba people, the last remaining tribe in Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa, to cling savagely to its native identity dating back over 500 years.

Although most of the country’s 12 separate ethnic groups have retained their own language, food and beliefs, many have been converted to Christianity and, while still very poor, have become somewhat Westernized. Not so the Himbas. Clad in very little clothing, breasts exposed, their bodies covered daily through a lengthy ritual with red ocher pigment mixed with animal fat, the Himbas maintain a primitive culture. There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes, and no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had ever seen. On the other hand, the men don’t have to worry about remembering to put the seat down.

Unlike other tribes, the more isolated and economically self-sustaining Himbas were able to resist the influence of missionaries who wanted them to cover their bodies, change their gods, upgrade their stick, mud and dung huts, and modernize their nomadic lifestyle. They are similar perhaps to the more well-known Masai tribes in Kenya in their ability to maintain ancient customs.

Bhavi related the story that several years ago, one of the Himba leaders was invited to Germany, a country that once controlled Namibia in the early 1900’s, to talk about the German atrocities that occurred there in 1904. Though urged to wear modern clothes, he refused to sacrifice his traditional attire.

Commenting on the matriarchal society of the Himba, in which the women do most of the work inside and outside the household, our guide pointed out: “The women call the shots but they make the men feel they’re in charge.” Somehow this did not seem like such an alien concept to the men on our tour…

Several of the women in the small village, made up of circular huts that might, depending upon the time of day, house as many chickens or calves as they do people, gathered in a circle to tell stories and sell their wares. Through a local interpreter/guide, I queried the female elder of the tribe about whether the young girls object to the daily ocher ritual or might want to dress in a more modern fashion: “They do not want to change,” she adamantly assured me. “They are happy continuing their traditions.” Nonetheless, the local guide shyly indicated that that’s not always true.
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The guide further explained that in reality the Himbas are slowly being forced to alter their lifestyle due to lack of pasture for their cattle, encroachment upon their land by more modern-leaning tribes, and other Western influences. Not surprisingly, this is something they do not want to accept. I then asked my captive audience if the Himbas were under any pressure from the government to change. The response: “Because we are a self-sustaining society — we tend our own goats and cattle and grow our own food — there is nothing external that can force us to change. Even people coming with electricity and other forms of modernization — even if they come with cattle prods to move a stubborn herd — we will resist.” She was pretty convincing. The local guide looked skeptical.
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The Himbas were only one of several different tribespeople we met with and in every other case, the mere mention of President Obama brought exuberant thumbs up and high fives. When I alluded to him in front of the lovely group of Himba women, however, I was greeted with blank stares.

Those of you who wish a closer look at Himba culture without traveling to Namibia should rent the feature film, “Babies,” which came out, appropriately, in time for last Mother’s Day. It follows toddlers from four countries, including one from a Himba community in Namibia.

Namibia is not only known for its interesting two-legged inhabitants; its four-legged creatures are equally intriguing. Although Etosha National Park is the premiere game-viewing area, we had seen quite a few animals, including ostrich, oryx, kudo, springbok, giraffe, zebra, baboon, jackal and elephant, during a previous stop at the Palmwag Concession southwest of the park.

By the time we got to Etosha, we were all pretty much of one mind: if it’s not a lion, cheetah or a rhino, don’t bother telling us. But Etosha, home to 114 species of wildlife, didn’t disappoint. Within 10 minutes of entering the park, we saw a lion. Okay, it was more than 350 yards away, but Bhavi said it was a lion and we believed him.

After that, however, it was downhill. When we next stopped miles later, it was for a rabbit. I thought, “Wow, he’s getting desperate!” But my cynicism was short-lived. Soon we arrived at a watering hole giving sustenance to a whole family of lions — a large-maned dad, a sleek-looking mom and a number of cuddly cubs, while nearby a lioness neighbor was feasting on a dead rhino. Hanging out at a safe distance were dozens of thirsty springboks, zebras and jackals just hoping the lions would tire of the watering hole and leave. They just stood there — lusting — and Bhavi predicted that none would get to drink that day.
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The intimidation was palpable — until one very brave little warthog approached the far end of the waterhole; eventually, a couple of zebras and springboks followed suit. I could just imagine the thought process: “Well, if he could do it, I may as well try.”
At that point, I could have returned to our lodge and been very happy with the day’s outing — and it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! But in truth, animal viewing in Etosha can be somewhat sporadic.
If the goal of your trip is a safari, go to Tanzania, Kenya or Botswana; but if you’re seeking sheer diversity of experience extending from unique topography — the highest sand dunes in the world — to indigenous culture to a fair amount of animal viewing, Namibia should be at the top of anyone’s Big Five (to keep with safari terminology) list!
For more information, log onto oattravel.com or call (800) 955-1925.

Photo credits: Bruce Genderson for the rhino and the village.
Victor Block for the elephants and the Himba woman

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They say it’s hard to walk in another’s footsteps, but those were exactly the instructions we received when trekking along the ridge of an approximately 350-foot-high sand dune in Namibia. The old mountain-climbing adage applies here, as well: “The slower you go up the mountain, the faster you get there.”

The country is located on the southwest coast of Africa and is named after The Namib, a 1200-mile-long stretch of real estate where scorching desert in stunning contrast overlaps frigid sea, and water, wind, sand and sun play off each other to create a unique visual landscape that challenges the most versatile of photographers. The desert, home to the highest sand dunes in the world, parallels the Skeleton Coast, so named in honor of the many wrecked ships and sailors’ lives lost over centuries. The latter also is home to hundreds of thousands of seals but despite their close proximity, rarely do the seals climb the dunes…
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Our sunrise ascent of the dunes, rust in color, smooth in texture, mountainous in size, and other-worldly in nature, was part of many such excursions on our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) tour, where the daily mantra of our guide, Bhavi, focused on “learning and discovery.” But more on that later.

First, from the summit we watched the early sunlight dancing on the dunes to the tune of orange, pink, tan, yellow and gray-colored notes. Later, flying in a small plane above a wider panorama, the dunes more resembled frothy peaks of pink meringue covering the countryside, and the sensuous gradations, indentations and undulations created by the shadows playing off those soft swirls of desert icing added as much to this visual feast as has the sweet geology of time.

My fellow travelers on the tour, all OAT veterans and intrepid adventurers, came to Namibia in part because it was virgin tourist territory. Mary Jo McDonald of Madison, Wisconsin touted the trip as “Exactly what I expected. It was full of adventure, exposure to under-developed areas with wildlife different from my other trips.” And she added: “I came primarily to see the dunes and they didn’t disappoint. I loved climbing them at sunrise and seeing them in such terrific light.”

The first thing you notice upon arrival at the Cape Cross Fur Seal Reserve, one of about 25 colonies along the Skeleton Coast and the only one accessible to the public, is a slightly pungent acrid odor. That greeting is followed by a modest barking sound, the level of which increases greatly as you approach further. As the general din breaks down into honking, wheezing, coughing, whining, braying, cackling, and bleating, and the small black dots begin to take shape as they lumber across the rocks, I wondered: “How can so many of the same species make so many different sounds?”

What first seemed like just a clamor of sounds then take on a more emotional content: The racket emanating from the mass of slippery humanity below? Sorrowful, belligerent, questioning, anxious, soulful. As I pondered their fierce existence — frigid waters, rocky shore, crowded conditions — I thought, “No wonder their cries are so mournful…”

The throngs of thousands are animated. Some seals brave the rough waters of the Atlantic, others settle for sunbathing; mothers tend to their pups, teens engage in rough `n tumble frolic, a bull or two seem to have what appears to be some words with each other. While I was mesmerized by the sea lions, the birdwatcher next to me was trying to determine whether it was a ruddy turnstone or an orange-legged ruff running along the surf. Avid birdwatchers are a species all to their own.
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I felt like a Peeping Tom overlooking massive gray communities of seals and stones merging together in a surreal setting. Outside one large boulder condo unit, a fiery male ferociously defends his territory. A little further away, some parents and their children are out for a stroll — albeit a somewhat bumpy one. Down another (decidedly) rocky road, a handsome young stud seemingly flirts with several females at once. Hmmm — perhaps not so different a social venue than our own.

Our OAT guide, who didn’t shy away from controversial topics — a very unusual trait among tour guides — told us that clubbing of the young is still used as a means of depleting the number of seals, seen by fisherman as a threat to their livelihood. As evidence builds that it’s more the humans than the seals that are responsible for the lower fish supply, it is hoped that the practice of culling will recede. Another “learning and discovery” moment.

But there is a lot more to recommend this unusual country than just its western coastline; the culture of its people and its wildlife offer visitors a whole other dimension to appreciate. More of that in Namibia Part II.
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This Conservation Area of Tanzania is designated multiple use, for wildlife, Maasai people, and their herds of goats, sheep, and cattle. We saw many little villages of stick huts along the way and children herding the animals, dressed in colorful red blankets, their typical Maasai tribal design. They seem so happy. If we stopped to take pictures they begged for money or tried to sell us a trinket, so after a few times of paying, we took photos without stopping. The road was one bounce after another, dry with a ferocious cloud of dust from every car zooming past. It was hot but with windows open the breeze was comfortable, but we all hurriedly shut them each time we met a car. Sometimes it was like a white-out blizzard for a couple of minutes.
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We stopped at a real Maasai village for a tourist event: typical war dances done by the men and marriage/harvest dances done by the women with many beads adorning them. The Maasai were the first to capitalize on making money from tourism, and years later the Ministry of Natural Resources decided to start Cultural Tours for the same reason. The Maasai encouraged us to participate in the dances and adorned me with a beaded collar for the tour. We entered a Maasai home of sticks, cardboard and bark, constructed by the wife, dabbed on top with dung for winter insulation. A smoldering stick fire was in the center, barely kept alive for cooking and heating.
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The man told us all about Maasai ways. The home was totally dark, no electricity, no water except what they buy for $600 a month for the village from a delivery truck, only for drinking; they take no baths. But the people were very clean and have no bad odors at all! They clean underarms and privates with a plant that foams like soap when rubbed.

The house had a winding entrance where the mom had peed, and one room divided into three parts by a stick wall: an all purpose room with the fire, children’s bed, and parents’ bed. The beds were made of sticks with a hide across it.
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Maasai can have as many wives as they want, if they pay the girl’s dad five cows. The chief of this village has 20 wives and 75 children whom he must support. Brothers and sisters after age 10 go to sleep in one sex houses in the village. At a special celebration boys are circumcised at 16 and by then know how to hunt. The Tanzanian government forbids circumcision of girls now.
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Women build the houses and learn from the older women after they are married. Because herds must move to new grazing areas, the Maasai move every three months, so the wives build new homes. It takes two weeks to gather the materials and a week to build, and the women tend the children as well.

Maasai only eat cooked meat and raw milk mixed with fresh blood of the cow, if they need the energy, but a cow can be bled at the neck only twice a year without impairing its life. The only other thing they eat is corn in a porridge during harvest time. I guess they steal it because they grow no crops that we could see.

We visited the village school where about twenty pre-school kids sang to us in their language and then sang the abc song. They have no books or desks and only use the sand for their “chalk board.” I learned that children in the city schools of Tanzania also have few books or facilities and that they have never seen the amazing African wild animals so many tourists go on safari to see.

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Next he led us around a big circle of trees that had jewelry made by each woman, We were to choose ones we wanted, and at the end he would tell us the price. After selecting various beads and trinkets we had decided to spend about $50 US, but he said $250. No way. We had seen most of the items in street shops much cheaper. We put most of it back and chose two bead baskets for $50 as we wanted to buy something from them. We had only US $100 bills, and they made US change…literally: Bill realized it was counterfeit, as the color was wrong and the five-dollar bill was smaller. Bill was inwardly fuming, while politely but firmly insisting the money was counterfeit and the chief kept insisting it was not. The Maasai chief, with a condescending smile, acted bewildered; we couldn’t get our $100 bill back; but finally we did.
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In former times, the Maasai were considered a ferocious tribe of giants, killing with machetes and spears. I didn’t know what might happen. Although they seemed quite docile and friendly, we were the only tourists within their stick walls. I ran out to the car for help from Manase, our wonderful, personal tour guide from Abrojaley Africa Ajabu Company. We got Bill away from the increasing flair of tempers, and we drove away with what we hoped was our real money, and without a purchase. We hated not helping the locals, but we hope they learned not to cheat. After some time and when we were a safe distance away, we realized that perhaps they had been passed counterfeit money by some tourists; however, the money looked so new and unused that we suspect the chief had some way of getting to town to a printing machine?? It is possible that they were innocent, but after two weeks here we saw them as conniving gypsies who plague tourists. But it is fascinating to visit their authentic village and see their unbelievable way of life.

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Abdul Meena, our host and owner of AbrojaleyAfricaAjabu Tour Company, met us as we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, after our amazingly wonderful week of safari, seeing all the amazing animals and several National Parks. (Please see our previous articles each month this year.) He introduced us to Brightson Pallangyo , who is working with the Minister of Natural Resources and Culture to develop programs to help locals by providing tours into the homes and small businesses. Mr. Pallangyo took us to his home and coffee plantation to visit his “Mama Gladness,” who heads up two of these Cultural Experience Tours near Arusha.

Cultural Tourism Initiative in Tanzania is a growing venture under the Minister of Natural Resources. Started in 2004, these tourist programs are now in 27 different locations. While tourists have come to Tanzania for decades for safaris to see the wild animals, this program enables visitors also to experience the local people and ways of life.

For years most tourists have the experience of going into a Maasai village set up to demonstrate their way of life and sell their crafts, but this Cultural Tourism Initiative is different. It is an authentic experience of eating or sleeping in actual homes of local people in various villages and learning their unique special ways and crafts and getting to know them as a people and culture.
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We were fortunate to go to Tengeru near Arusha and be guests for the afternoon in the home of Mama Gladness, who prepared a delicious meal of typical local food: pilau (brown rice), ndizi na nyama (banana with beef), makande (beans and corn), choroko (green garnets), white rice and vegetable beef, chapatti (hard pancake), and fresh juice cocktail of mango, avocado, carrot, orange and honey. We were served buffet style in a beautiful garden patio.
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After the wonderful meal all the tourist guests got a tour of the home farm where two cows in stalls are fed elephant grass that grows adjacent to their stalls. The stalls are cleaned daily and the manure goes underground into a system that hygienically produces all the fertilizer for the coffee and banana plantation and also produces methane gas, which is piped into the home to use for totally clean and odorless gas cooking and to create the electricity and hot water for the home. This system worked so beautifully, and guests from the western world were amazed at the self-sufficiency and permanent sustenance such a farm provides for the family.
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We toured the lovely hillside grove of banana trees towering above and providing shade for the coffee trees beneath them. This home plantation’s groves are 70 years old and family operated. They hand harvest the red arabica and robusta coffee beans and clean and dry them to ship to Germany for roasting and marketing.
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We had the special treat of getting to pick, shell, grind, roast, and prepare some beans in the typical way that local families enjoy coffee in their homes. With the help of our hostess Gladness and her son Lemu, we had the most fun grinding the coffee beans by placing them in a wooden drum and pounding them with a tall wooden pole while the women sang the happy grinding song, which set the rhythm of the pounding. Tanzanians have traditional songs that make any work joyful and set the pace for people to coordinate their energy and work together happily. The local philosophy is “Bulle, Bulle…go slowly, arrive home happy.” A cup of coffee never tasted as good as this we made and sipped in the lush garden, relaxing and visiting with the family and a representative from the Tourism Department, Mary, who is coordinator of all the 27 Cultural Tourism events around Tanzania. They also took us to the second brief cultural tourism visit at Lake Duluti near Arusha. We stayed only briefly because we needed to get back to repack for our trip home early the next day.
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These events are women’s initiatives and the nominal price you pay for these experiences goes to help the local community in whatever way the group thinks is most needed: building schools, providing school supplies, clean water, building bridges, etc.
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We encourage everyone who visits Tanzania to include one or more of these in-home events to get to know local people and their way of life. They are beautiful, gracious, happy, loving and generous people and welcome you with open arms and the customary three kisses on the cheek, and they speak very good English. This will augment and complete all the other wonderful things you experience in Africa.