I will begin this postlude with the end of my prelude; “The only thing I feel certain of is that whatever words I can muster, or images on film I produce; they will serve but poor justice to the vibrant reality that awaits and tolerates my observation.”
In those words I got it exactly right. I knew before I left that whatever I imagined it then to be, it would pale in comparison to the experience of the true African bush and her scenic beauty.
I have now participated in a mobile, tented wildlife safari and have experienced the woodlands, flood plains, wetlands, and the vast and unpredictable Okavango Delta; I’ve watched the sunset over the savannah, seen the birds skitter along the reeds in the marshlands and spied crocodiles basking in the sun next to the great rivers of northern Botswana; then drenched myself in the spray of Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi River. I’ve been to the African bush.
Being mistaken for David Livingstone isn’t a concern, but I lay awake in the cold July winter night listening to the hippos grunt, the elephants wail and trumpet, the lions call, and the hyena and jackals howl; forever to the background of the night bird’s lonely and persistent song.
The camps were always expertly run, our needs were catered to, and our safety assured as is reasonable to expect given the situation.
I was awakened every morning as hot water was delivered to my little canvas wash basin; and again in the evenings for my bucket shower under the stars (and surrounded by canvas on all four sides lest you wonder if the sight of a naked white guy who eats too much cheese chases away the animals).
I pulled the old camp coffeepot off the fire every morning, just like they do in old westerns, in preparation for the morning game drive. I sat with my fellow journeyers around the campfire and sipped a glass of perfectly a cceptable South African Chardonnay after the evening game drive; a perfect example of how well taken care of we all were. A special supply of Chardonnay was brought in at mid-safari resupply – not at my request, but only because it was dis covered that I have a fondness for it.
Food was prepared in a wood-fired Dut ch oven and I enjoyed gourmet meals every night. As if that weren’t enough, the cook had to accommodate two vegetarians and one wheat-free dietary requirement; and it always came together swimmingly. All over an open fire - Hey Martha, put that in your convection oven and bake it!
But keeping us comfortable and catered in camp wasn’t really the point. We were on a wildlife safari, after all, and life wasn’t that wild in camp. It was out on the game drives:
And finally, on our last game drive:
But it wasn’t about making a list either. There was a moment in the safari that the real purpose of us being there showed itself with such incredible force and beauty that it stunned the group into absolute and reverential silence. Any one of the eleven people present in that moment will be able to tell you:
It was the Quelea at sunset.
We were finishing up the evening game drive on our second night in the Khwai River Valley. The sun was an orange-red ball sinking behind the Mopane woodland to the west. Like a fluid wave the Quelea rose into the twilight in a massive flock of millions of birds darkening the sky in synchronized flight, circling the horizon in all directions. The sound and energy of the birds, in a transcendence that made a single organism out of the millions of individuals, was palpable and electrified the cool evening breeze. No one had a word to say, no words would ever have been adequate, nor could be adequate in this description. That we were all completely and simultaneously rendered awestruck and speechless, some brought to tears, bears testimony to the fact that untamed nature – perfect, raw, beautiful – still lies buried inside, calling us all eventually home. It really isn’t a cliché. If there is to be a defining moment for our little journey into the African wilderness - our wildlife safari - that would have been it.
Africa is a land of irony and conflicted interest. It is a land of stunning beauty and mystery, with incomparable natural resources.
It is also a land rife with poverty, human suffering, and unenlightened, brutal leadership.
But in Botswana, our little group saw none of that (evidence of it does certainly exist, however, in Zambia and Zimbabwe). It is easy for me to come into a part of the world for a few days and leave again without regard for a more honest picture of life there.
The best I can hope for is that my presence represents an alternative; and that habitat and species destruction can be “bad for business” and unprofitable. That there is a practical opportunity for at least a few inhabitants to live and thrive where before there was no opportunity.
And any heart opened with the majestic primacy of nature – like what was undeniably felt while experiencing the Quelea at sunset - is another bit of hope that it all won’t perish by our own arrogant foolishness.
Was it worth cold mornings and dirty hands and dusty, kidney-jarring roads? Well, if it wasn’t I’d have certainly come to the wrong place.
There are easier ways to spend your vacation. And there are most definitely harder ways. (Did I mention the gourmet meals and the Chardonnay?) But I can’t think of a better way to spend a few days to get to know Africa. I know I’ve seen her at her best.
And she is beautiful.
- For Alwyn and Stanley; whose tireless patience, emanate knowledge, essential experience, and absolute professionalism brought Africa alive for me and all of us lucky enough to share the experience. Thank you.
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