The conversation went something like this; Helen – “I need some more excitement and adventure in my life …perhaps an encounter or two with a wild animal would satisfy my inner longings”. Dennis – “ You need look no further than across the bed …I can be wild and as feral as you like” “Yes, I know, your temper rages remind me of a wild bull elephant and your snoring is like a pod of hippos – but why should I have imitations when I can have the real thing… I want to go to Africa”. It was to be our last hurrah, a comment I have made after each overseas sojourn. Our excuse this time was to celebrate a significant milestone – 43 and ¾ years of Helen putting up with my eccentricities’.
Several months later our plane touched down in Cape Town, South Africa. In between our bedtime reveille and our arrival there was a steep learning curve. Our daughter Julie was touring that continent and sent copious emails with advice, only to be outdone by Karen, an inveterate traveller who has been to Africa 5 times. It was simply a case of mum and dad trying to keep up with the kids. I learnt to my horror that overseas travel is synonymous for wild shopping sprees. One simply cannot go on safari unless properly outfitted to look like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen”. Fortunately most of the clothes in my cupboard were from that era and the massive shopping emporiums of Vinnies or the Sallies had equally ill fitting, out of date costumes ready for our perusal.
We had more needles stuck in us than a porcupine and we took enough medication to treat the entire Bantu nation. We were prepared for tummy upsets, but were more likely to get hernias carrying all the medicines. Our bank manager had apoplectic fits as we sent more and more funds off shore…he was sure we were off to Nigeria on some scam. Just a few weeks before departure I took seriously ill with stomach cramps and back pain. I was too sick to go but not sick enough to convince my insurance company to make a payout. I had more tests, scans and procedures than a laboratory rat but miraculously recovered. In fact Helen and I enjoyed remarkably good health for the entire 8 weeks travel.
Out of Africa
Cape Town is a remarkably beautiful city. We drank in the beauty of the stunning coastline, scaled the heights of Table Mountain (which has just been listed as one of the new 7 wonders of the world) and chartered a taxi to visit the Cape of Good Hope where Helen’s ancestors were shipwrecked on their way to Australia and a new life. We wandered through the Botanical Gardens where King Proteas, the size of dinner plates, were in glorious bloom. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is the city’s equivalent of Sydney’s Darling Harbour except instead of kangaroos and boomerangs the shops were stocked with carved African animals and the vivid materials of an exuberant people. It was fun to wander, browse and sample the local coffee and cuisine. It was also my time to reminisce as I remembered my dad, who as a lone teenager wandered these docks on his way to Australia. The undoubted highlight of our time in Cape Town was reuniting with Julie and spending several days with her.
In museums, native townships and other places scattered around town we discovered some of the history of the apartheid times, but perhaps no place was more sobering than a boat trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandella was incarcerated for many years and we viewed the tiny cell where he spent his days. It was heavy going as we wandered through the cell blocks where our guide, a former inmate described life through those difficult years. A far lighter aspect was as we alighted the ferry and a voice rang out –“Dennis – is that you Dennis Brown” – It was a close friend of my sister recognising me in that far off place – it is indeed a small world. One Sunday we worshipped in St Georges Cathedral, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu once led freedom marches and prayer vigils. It was largely through the ministry of reconciliation and the forgiveness he espoused, that South Africa avoided the predicted blood bath. As we took communion in this stately building we were surrounded by a congregation of coloured, black and white people, united in a common faith.
It’s not a Bus –It’s a Truck
We figured we would not be back in Africa and so endeavoured to fit in as much as our time, energy and budget would allow. All of these things were severely stretched. We combined 3 tours with Nomad Travel, a group specialising in overland travel. An acrostic for NOMAD could be – New and exciting places; Out of the ordinary experiences; Magnificent scenery; Adventures unlimited; Destinations and Discoveries to satisfy. We criss-crossed Southern and Eastern Africa, travelling from Cape Town, to Nairobi, Kenya. We visited 8 countries, 9 game parks and 12 National parks. There were a total of 9 flights, including a regional carrier with the dubious name of “1 Time” – At least it wasn’t ”Last Time”. Mostly, we bumped and shuddered our way over 15,000 kilometres of roads into the “Real Africa”. There were zillions of zebras, great herds of elephants, countless impala, buffalo and wildebeest, statuesque giraffes, rebellious rhinos, happy hippos and lethargic lions… and lots of friendly, welcoming people.
Our first tour of 20 Days took us from Cape Town, South Africa to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. There were 19 people on the bus …oops it’s not a bus – it’s a truck’ as our genial cook constantly reminded us – not that we needed reminding for it had harsh suspension and utilitarian features. It definitely was not a luxurious tourist coach. We were reminded we were there for adventure and to expect the unexpected –be it in the form of rough roads, basic food or fellow tourists. Ours was a cosmopolitan group consisting of Dutch, German, Polish, Kiwis and Aussies. Most were well travelled and well advanced in years though I had the honour of being the most advanced –well, at least the oldest. We blended well though there was the inevitable loud mouth “Know all” and the commentator type who had to comment on the blatantly obvious, until I felt like crying out “Put a sock in it” – well, she already had her foot in her mouth.
To get us in a genial mood one of our first stops was to a South African winery- we not only had tastings but were given a couple of complimentary bottles to help pass the miles. A Dutch couple took this lead and appeared to spend more on liquor than on the total tour costs. We felt in need of something strong – maybe a whiskey or three when our debit card wasn’t accepted in several banks and we faced the possibility of travelling without funds. One ATM did accept the card and deducted a sizeable amount but refused to hand over the cash. These were minor irritants or rather major stress factors until sorted out – which was rather hard when all your daylight hours – from 6.00 am till 7.00 pm were spent sitting in a truck – but that was all part of the adventure. Most evenings we relaxed in comfortable accommodation or luxurious lodges and not infrequently there was an inviting swimming pool to wash away the dust.
One adventure was our first encounter with a group of elephants along the road. “I really feel I’m now in Africa” yelled Helen excitedly as we grabbed our cameras and jumped off the truck to get close and personal. … followed by the driver yelling at us in panicked tones to get back on board “These can be dangerous animals – you should not go near them, you must never get off the bus like that” His words fell on deaf ears as we enthusiastically snapped away. Another potentially dangerous encounter was when Helen and I climbed the famous Dune 45 in the Namibian desert. For mile after mile huge dunes, the height of skyscrapers, have been formed by the relentless wind. It is an awe inspiring spectacle and the challenge was to climb one of the highest. Tramping along the very spine at its zenith we were suddenly confronted by a 3 metre snake. On either side the sand fell away steeply and seemingly there was nowhere to go, but fortunately our adversary decided at the last moment to do a spot of sand surfing down the incline.
One necessary adventure happened every 2 hours or so for toilet stops. Our driver found a bushy spot by the roadside and with bladders bursting we tumbled out. The women rushed for the prime hidden locations while men wandered to a nearby tree. It may be basic but certainly much more pleasant than facing some of the Service Station toilets. Another adventure was braving shopping malls or tiny kiosks. Some places were like rugby scrums as we vied to purchase essential bottled water.
Etosha Game Park in northern Namibia was our first encounter with masses of wild animals. They set our cameras into overdrive as each new creature seemed worthy of a dozen or more shots. Some in our group had expensive cameras with huge lens hanging from the body like – well, elephant trunks and the whole unit weighing about as much as an elephant. Digital photography encourages multiple exposures and I arrived home with over 7,000 images which will take forever to edit. At a water hole about 6 elephants frolicked in the mud, closely observed by a similar number of giraffes, a few ostriches and herds of gazelles. The only thing to outnumber the animals seemed to be tourists hanging from 4 wheel drives and all manoeuvring to get better positions. We drove across vast open plains reminiscent of western NSW except here the large flocks were not sheep but shaped like horses and wearing black and white striped pyjamas.
On two evenings we sat for hours near floodlit waterholes. It was like people spotting at a local pub as animals came into drink. On the first night a couple of white rhinos dominated the scene coming and going as the mood struck. Between their visits a pack of hyenas descended to drink. On the second night at a different site we were startled to see a herd of about a dozen elephants, including some babies, parade by the water. When they left about a dozen giraffes cautiously approached, mindful that a couple of lions lurked nearby. Such was their need for refreshment that they braved the dangers. Unfortunately low light, moving subjects and telephoto lens are not a good combination for photography and the animals were out of flash reach. There are blurred images on our memory cards but in the memory banks of our mind are precious pictures of truly wonderful nights.
Chobe Game Park in Botswana offered another smorgasbord of animals and many photographs. The Chobe River flats seemed like a vast picnic ground where all manner of animal came out to feast. One afternoon we travelled by large open truck past solitary giraffes and literally hundreds of impalas, buffaloes and elephants, including families of these large animals walking right past our vehicle. That evening we travelled by boat past huge pods of hippos wallowing and wrestling in the waters – these ungainly animals reputedly kill more people than any other creature in Africa. We were advised “Never get between a hippo and the water”. This was also good advice about the beady eyed crocodiles lounging on the banks awaiting prey. A truly mind blowing day was concluded with the sun, like a fiery red ball reflected in the crimson waters.
Also in Botswana is the Okavango Delta, a vast expanse of rivers, channels, swamps and marsh land which is home to elephants, hippos, crocodiles and monkeys as well as a haven for abundant bird life. We had a bird’s eye view of this renowned spectacle as we took a scenic flight, and for over an hour witnessed the vastness of this place. To reach our 5 star Lodge we took another flight and then a speedboat along labyrinthine waterways. Our huts were set at the water’s edge and we were instructed not to move between facilities at night unless accompanied by a local guide. One evening we heard the patter of little feet outside – though the feet were XXXXXsize. A few weeks earlier elephants had trashed one building. One morning as the sun crept out from the jungle foliage there were grunts and groans from the water outside. “Is that you snoring again, Dennis?” Helen enquired. “No, it’s just a couple of hippos getting amorous “.
We went on river cruises, canoed in dugouts poled by skilled natives, witnessed jaw dropping sunsets and when looking for baboons with another tourist we were bailed up by 3 warthogs, their tusks looking decidedly unfriendly. Later at South Luangwa, Zambia we stayed in a permanent tent resplendent with en suite and discovered lions had roamed the camp ground that night. Earlier that evening we were thrilled when four bachelor lions raced our vehicle along a dry creek bed. On that same safari we witnessed the cruel side of nature as a dead baby giraffe was ravaged by a flock of vultures while the distressed animal’s parents paraded anxiously nearby.
The Smoke that Thunders
When David Livingstone first discovered Victoria Falls in 1855 the natives called it “Mosi-oa-Tunya” or “The Smoke that Thunders”. The spray can be seen for miles as over a million litres of water a second tumbles over the cliff face. It was an undoubted highlight of our trip and a raft load of adjectives would fail to describe it. Lonely Planet simply says it is “the largest, most beautiful and most majestic waterfall on the planet”. It is listed as one of the great natural wonders of the world and was a prime reasons I came to Africa … I was not disappointed. The walk along the Zimbabwean side to view this great curtain of water probably takes about 30 minutes including photo stops. It took us over 4 hours as we stopped at every view point to drink in the views, to soak up the atmosphere as well as the constant spray and to be in awe of its wonder. Late in the afternoon as the sun’s rays filtered through the trees magnificent rainbows formed.
We loved the falls so much that a week later we returned for a second helping – this time in Zambia and had another extended time viewing them from a different perspective. That evening we celebrated my 74th birthday at a posh restaurant while watching the sun go down over the Zambezi River. It was an idyllic spot and over recent years my birthday has fallen at some exotic locations including New York, Thredbo and the Kimberly. Next January Helen has a significant birthday and to keep up with my wanderings I suspect she has already purchased tickets to Paris, Patagonia or Prague or maybe we will just have to make do with Parramatta.
Victoria Falls also prides itself on adrenalin filled activities. Julie had recently crossed the gorge by flying fox and so I just had to keep up with her. Strapped into a harness attached to a pulley on a high wire I zoomed across the void from Zambia to Zimbabwe. It was 45 seconds of sheer excitement and probably one of the most unusual ways anywhere to cross an international border…and that crossing is a great divide – On one side Zambia is relatively democratic and stable and on the other, Zimbabwe, once a bread basket of Africa has become a basket case, driven to ruin by the mad man Robert Mugabe. While he lives in ostentatious splendour his people starve. Zimbabwe money is worthless. Touts offered us old notes as souvenirs including a 300 trillion dollar issue. Beggars abound in the streets of Victoria Falls township and the $30.00 entrance fee to the falls is siphoned off elsewhere leaving walkways and park furniture in ruins and safety fences non- existent. Zimbabweans are waiting for the day their reviled leader dies.
Kruger National Park is arguably the best known in Africa. We did a massive detour just to be there – It lived up to its reputation. We saw rare white rhinos and one evening our driver heard on the radio that a leopard with a kill up a tree, had been spotted. Like tow truck drivers converging at an accident, the safari vehicles raced to the scene. Helen was ecstatic. Her cries of “O my goodness” could scarcely be heard above camera shutters. One day our driver cut the motor only metres from a couple of lions. It wouldn’t restart, leaving us stranded and the lions eyeing us off for lunch. Finally a tow rope was passed to another 4 wheel drive and a number of other vehicles encircled us like chuck wagons around a camp to provide protection, while the rope was hitched and we were pulled to safety.
It was not all about animals. Most mornings we woke to glorious sunrises and bade the day farewell with dramatic sunsets that painted the western sky in vivid reds, yellows and pink. Panoramas of veldt, ocean, jungle, lake or desert filled our camera’s viewfinder, often framed by iconic Acacia trees. We viewed Fish River Canyon (Namibia) and later Blyde River Canyon (South Africa) which, after Grand Canyon, are respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest in the world. All are awe inspiring – as were the people we met along the way. They had so little but seemed content and were almost universally cheerful. We visited numerous indigenous villages where the centre piece was the village water pump, often supplied by aid or church groups in Australia. We sat in village huts, schools and clinics and always came away impressed with the culture and slightly guilty we have so much and they so little. Helen joined in traditional dancing but baulked at some unknown and foul smelling food. The famed Masai warriors looked regal and proud, standing tall and clothed in bright red or blue. They still hunt animals by traditional methods and tools, and claim their strength comes from the blood of cattle, which they drink daily.
One day near Lake Malawi we went on a 30 kilometre hike up a mountain to reach Livingstonia, a mission station founded by David Livingstone. There were schools, a hospital, museum and a large church that would not look out of place in Scotland. (Livingstone’s homeland) There was even a university with several faculties and boarding colleges. The imprint of this famous missionary, explorer and liberator were found throughout Africa. In many places statues or plaques commemorate this revered man, who opened up so much of Africa, preached to tens of thousands and campaigned tirelessly against the inhuman atrocities of slavery. Many followed in his footsteps.
We joined this tour in Livingstone, Zambia and proceeded through that country, then along massive Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa before entering Tanzania and finally 3 weeks later arrived at our destination of Nairobi, Kenya. ln Stone Town, a world heritage site on the island of Zanzibar, a couple of hours fast ferry ride from the Tanzanian coast, a cathedral dedicated to Livingstone and his followers now stands where slave markets once did their evil trade. We wandered through the maze of crooked laneways, joined in the fun of local markets, visited spice plantations and took a cruise in an ancient dhow, (traditional wooden sailing boat). We swam in the crystal waters, sunbaked on golden sands, shopped till we dropped and watched dramatic sunsets over the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar was not on my “bucket list” but we are sure glad we went. Often the unplanned or unexpected becomes a highlight.
Our group on this leg were good company, apart from an “Ugly American” who caused considerable angst but we refused to let her spoil our fun. One delightful young couple from Italy were obviously having lots of fun – It was their honeymoon! There were Swiss and Germans as well as four film makers from Brazil shooting a doco on our travels (Watch the internet to see us perform)!) We became friends with a young couple of engineers, an Aussie and his German partner. He hopped out of our safari vehicle carrying a sandwich and was immediately attacked by baboons that appeared from nowhere and then leapfrogged onto the roof of our truck. (The baboons – not our friend!) Helen and I also had close animal encounters when we were encouraged to pat cheetahs at a Game Lodge or when kites dived bombed us for food or a cheeky rodent stole our sweets.
The world famous Serengeti Plains and adjacent Ngorongoro Crater were Helen’s favourite spot – and with good reason. We slept under canvas and felt the raw wildness of this land. We watched 8 lions take up strategic positions to hunt some zebras who wandered past. It was all very exciting but Helen was rooting for the zebras and they won – due to the lion’s inaction…or was it Helen’s fervent prayers? On two successive days we saw 3 leopards, the most elusive animal in the African bush. Two walked past our vehicle close enough to pat (which fortunately we refrained from doing). One mum had a couple of babies in tow. A lion and lioness cavorted nearby, he had sex on his mind but she was not interested despite his repeated advances. Perhaps she expected a night out with wine and a candle lit dinner of wildebeest steak!
On our last evening, the tour leader addressed us with sobering news. There was terrorist activity in Nairobi and we could expect road blocks or worse. On arrival in Kenya’s capital the papers told of bomb blasts and civilian deaths. The travel warnings said to avoid the place we were already at. Again we were protected and felt blessed. Indeed throughout our travels there was a sense of it all being surreal. We needed to pinch ourselves constantly – “This is not a National Geographic documentary …this is really happening”. It was a truly wonderful adventure. We came home with a love and appreciation for Africa, its people, land and animals. It was an overwhelming privilege to see and do and experience it all.
Helen and Dennis Brown, November 2011