Africa
(South Africa, Botswana)

13 Jul 1999
Fly to Johannesburg.

My first African impression: it's cold, I underestimated winter and after enduring at least 40C (105F) everyday in Egypt, I'm freezing.

My second African impression: wow, it looks just like home. Gently rolling wooded hills and urban neighborhoods that could just as easily be suburbs of New York as Johannesburg, except the people are speaking Zulu on the streets.

For lunch I had a banana burger and my first decent stout since Boulder. If no one shoots at me, I think I'm going to like it here.

14 Jul 1999
A visit to Soweto, but first a brief history lesson.

1948: Apartheid established. Its four pillars were:

  1. Land Act - 13% of South Africa set aside for 75% of the population. Blacks not allowed to own or rent property outside of these areas.
  2. Group Areas Act- Enforced the physical separation of residential areas by race.
  3. Separate amenities Act - Separate public facilities: schools, beaches, toilets, busses etc...
  4. Pass laws - Blacks compelled to carry identity cards, and forbidden from being in towns without specific permission

1963: Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders jailed for promoting the idea of a nonracial democracy.

1966: Blacks are divided into 10 tribal groups and forcibly relocated to "homelands" irrespective of where they were born. Ostensibly they were given self rule but the lands were poor and with no infrastructure so most still had to work in the white cities where they had no rights at all.

1976: Soweto students protest over being forced to use Afrikaans in schools. Police open fire on the protesters triggering an era of strikes, riots and police activity that would claim thousands of lives.

1985: South Africa declares a state of emergency in what is verging on civil war.

1988: South African police have detained 30,000 people without trial.

1990: FW De Klerk announces he will repeal discriminatory laws, Mandela released from prison

1994: Mandela elected president.

After more than 10 years of armed conflict, and with only 5 years to heal I went on a guided visit of Soweto Township with Max of Maximum tours. We went over the culture and some of the above history on the 20 minute drive in his well worn BMW. First stop, one of the 8 squatter's camps in Soweto, 3,100 shacks supported by seven water taps and 90 chemical toilets.

Max turned me over to a camp resident, Chris, who showed me around. He took me first to an orphan's shelter and proudly showed off their drum majorette trophies and demonstrated how the TV worked off car batteries. Then, we were off for a Coke (served anonymously through a hole in the wall) at a neighborhood pub.

As we wandered the labyrinthine paths lined with corrugated walls people pointed and stared and children ran along behind us. But, the attention all seemed good natured humor and curiosity. No one seemed angry about me being there. I sat down with some children and learned the Zulu greetings. With all the pain and hurt that has been focused on Soweto, I was amazed at the warmth and vibrance of the people in the camps. I asked Chris what they did for money.

Soweto Camp Shack
Typical homes in a Soweto squatter's camp.

He took me to a shack like all the rest. Inside, the woman who lives there sells sweets to children and chibuku to the adults. For 1.5 Rand (US$ 0.25) I was offered a class of chibuku, a milky white drink brewed from corn meal that's often referred to as "African beer." I sipped my way through a watery, yeasty tasting third of it before offering the glass to a local who gulped it down, chunks and all.

Chris brought me back to Max and his waiting car. Max took me around the tourist sights of Soweto, Winnie Mandela's house, a huge compound on a hill; Nelson Mandela's old home, now a museum documenting his lifetime achievements; a "famous" restaurant, now more popular with tourists than locals; and finally to the Hector Peterson Memorial.

Hector was the first black child killed by South African police in 1976. A picture of a another student carrying his dying body away from the riots, with Hector's sister running alongside, made the cover of several newspapers and became a symbol of the struggle.

The memorial is a simple stone monument ringed by a bit landscaping and shipping containers. The containers hold photographs of the Soweto uprising. The pictures show the riots and the beatings, blacks armed with assault weapons defending themselves against police in armored troop carriers. They are powerful images.

The struggle against Apartheid was the issue of my generation. I participated in protests and demonstrations alongside lots of other people who didn't really understand the issues. Standing in those shipping containers looking at the images of shot and bleeding children, I can only wish I'd "gotten it" sooner.

My tour ended at Max's own house, a typical Soweto dwelling he told me. His half of the duplex was a kitchen, living room and two small bedrooms. There is no running water and the bathroom is outside. Not as nice as many of the places in Soweto, but he does well enough that he doesn't have to host squatter's shacks in his back yard. Like many, Max has aspirations of improving his house, but not of moving out of Soweto. There is a strong sense of community he told me, everyone knows and likes each other and there are few problems. Soweto is home to him, a good home that he loves.

Soweto at dusk
Soweto at dusk. The dark smoke is from coal stoves.

15 Jul 1999
Rent a car and drive to the coastal city of Durban.

Easy enough, except I almost ran out of gas which was really scary. You hear so much about the crime in South Africa, it's hard to know what is safe and what isn't. Driving around lonely, poorly lit neighborhoods at night looking for an open gas station with the needle on empty was nerve wracking.

16 Jul 1999
Durban is big! I expected a small town, but it's a medium sized city. The Gunston 500 international surfing competition is in town, so I checked that out for a while down on the beach. Then I soliciting for climbing partners at all the local outdoor shops. Success! I lined up partners for Saturday and Sunday.

17 Jul 1999
Climbing.

I led some 10a-ish cracks at a crag called The Boneyard. I climbed about the way you'd expect given that it's been two months and I'm way out of shape, but it was great to get out and move over rock again.

18 Jul 1999
I visited The Wave Cave, Natal's premier sport climbing area. Lot's of 20 meter routes that overhang about 15 meters. Pretty to look at, but all a bit much for me. I did flail a bit on the 5.11 "warm up" route.

19 Jul 1999
I did a quick check at Montseel, Natal's most popular crag, to see if there were any weekday climbers about. There were none, so I went for a pleasant drive up the coast to the town of Mtubatuba. I stayed in Mtubatuba just because I liked the name and wanted to be able to write Mtubatuba a few times.

It's a one traffic-light town in the middle of nowhere, but there was a pleasant bed & breakfast. The Sundowner Hotel is a bit run down these days, but it's easy to see that it must have been beautiful in it's glory days and it was still more comfort and respectability than I'd had in a long while.

At dinner I had wonderful Zulu waitress and my attempts at the clicks and other sounds that are part of the Zulu language entertained us all night. A lot of the African people I've met love to laugh and I've found a side-splitting hoot at nothing in particular to be a great ice breaker.

20 Jul 1999
A visit to Hlueweuwe park. As per my Zulu lessons, Hlueweuwe sounds something like "huh, Louie Louie" except when you say the Louies you roll your lips into a tube and pluck with your tongue making sort of a launching-a-spitball sound.

From the brochure:

Please Note: Lion, leopard, elephant, black and white rhino, buffalo, hippo and crocodile occur in this reserve and are potentially dangerous and unpredictable wild animals. You enter the reserve at your own risk.

Don't leave your vehicle unless at a designated hide, view site, or picnic site.

No motorcycles. No pets.

They handed me the brochure, took my 30 Rand (US$6) and sent me on my way.

This park was recommended to me by a South African I met in Sharm el-Sheikh and it did not disappoint. Just inside the gate I found herds of giraffe and zebra. There were impala (antelope), warthogs and all sorts wildlife covering the park.

I'd been driving two hours when I spotted a rhino grazing about 20 meters away from me. I shot almost a roll of film trying to get a good head shot (hard to do while they are grazing). Then, just as I finished the roll, it decided to saunter on over to my car. Yikes. It crossed the road about five meters in front of me. I managed to get a few shots off with the digital camera as I fumbled new film into my 35mm.

Drive to Waterval-Boven (six hours) and sleep in my car at a campground.

21 Jul 1999
Like many other climbers in the 90s, my introduction to the sport was John Long's How to Rock Climb. I remember picking up the book for the first time. On the cover was a beautiful shot of a climber next to a spectacular waterfall and I immediately checked the photo credit to see where the picture was taken. "Rats!" I then thought, "South Africa, too far away."

Still, one can dream. I read that book hundreds of times and each time started with a glance at that photograph. If it has done one thing for me, climbing has honed my desire to do the things I dream about.

This morning I visited that waterfall. The climb is still beyond my ability, and there were no partners around to even try, but it felt as if I'd closed a circle. I'll have to return someday to actually do the climb, one more dream to keep on the list.

After my pilgrimage, I drove to Kruger Park, South Africa's biggest and oldest game reserve. Kruger is crowded though and highly developed. As I drove around I saw antelope, hippo, and monkeys, but I couldn't help being a little disappointed. The interesting animals were always marked by a cluster of cars. Then, as I was returning to my 120 Rand a night tent, I stumbled across an elephant in the road.

as I jockeyed for position, trying to get a good shot in the fading light, the elephant went down a dirt pullout. "Great," I thought. I quickly drove to the other side and waited for it to show up. She did, and glared at me angrily as I was now blocking her path. oops.

Wildlife photography tip: Keep the car in gear and your foot on the clutch.

Remember, the digital camera has no zoom. If you can see the animal clearly, I am way too close.

22 Jul 1999
Had some breakfast, rolled down the windows, put on some tunes and went lion hunting. Well, sort of. Really I was just driving aimlessly and I'm not sure what sort of music lions prefer, but it seemed proper to give the day some sort of objective.

The entire experience had a Jurassic Park feel to it. I'd be driving down dirt roads though scrub forest gazing intently into the underbrush, waiting for something to happen and then I'd look in my rear view mirror to find I was being tailgated by a herd of giraffe. I kept expecting a lion to come bounding out from behind the nearest tree and jump through the passenger window. It never happened. Rats.

My best sighting of the day was a pair of rhino. They were too far away for good pictures, but they were much more animate than the other rhinos I'd seen. I soon found out way. A leopard came flying out from under a bush and chased them away. The leopard was ridiculously small compared to the rhinos, but they took it very seriously and thundered off. Mother Nature, live and uncensored...

23 Jul 1999
Yesterday I watched a leopard chasing rhinos. Today I went to the mall and bought a 16 meg chip for my digital camera.

In between I drove through rolling green hills of pristine veldt. Pristine that it is except for the industry. Factories and mines dotting the landscape like open sores on the arms of a Hollywood junky, the pollution so thick that at times I needed headlights to see the road. The town where I stopped for lunch was in the midst of a labor dispute; desperately poor people trying to wring blood from a tattered economy.

That is South Africa -- black and white, rich and poor, breathtaking beauty and heart rending tragedy -- a land of tension and energy filled with people who haven't lost their ability to laugh as they begin sorting through a huge pile of problems.

24 Jul 1999
Catch the overnight bus to Maun, Botswana.

25 Jul 1999
My plan had been to get off the bus in Francistown, Botswana, and then to catch another bus to Maun. Then I met Janine(English) and Bridgid(American-Irish). Their plan was to get off the bus a little later, in Nata and then hitchhike to Maun. I pointed out that it was likely to be a dicey hitch, they pointed out that I was likely to miss the one bus a day out of Francistown to Maun. They won, and we all agreed to try the hitch.

This seemed like an ok idea until we were all actually standing in the Botswana desert watching the few drivers that went by ignore us. Luckily we all discovered senses of humor that hadn't been evident on the overnight bus right and we were soon laughing at our predicament and started trying to flag down anything that went by.

A huge truck (20 meters long) stopped. At first we though it was a joke, but no, he was sure he could fit us and all of our junk in the cab. And so we found ourselves cruising across the desert just north of the Kalahari in what the Continental women referred to as, "a lorry."

In Maun we got some locals to help us not get fleeced on the cab ride out to Audi camp. Of course, the first question they asked us was, "What name are the reservations under?" "Umm, what reservations would those be? And no, we don't have any camping gear..." With a few forlorn looks we managed to talk them into letting us stay on the condition we set up the loaner tents. With that accomplished we sat down to a candlelight dinner. Audi camp isn't quite roughing it.

26 Jul 1999
Explore Maun a bit and set up my mokoro trip. In the evening, a nostalgic final dinner with Janine and Bridget.

27-31 Jul 1999

Elephant Dung & Lion Tracks
Five Days in the Okavango Delta

A lion's world view, they told us in the animal briefing, is quite simple. There are things that are in charge, and they are called lions. And, there are things that run away, and they are called food. Not much else matters.

The key to dealing with a lion they told us, was to avoid putting yourself into the food category. This is accomplished by not running away. Standing still is ok, even running towards the lion if you are so inclined, but under no circumstances were we to run away.

I'm reviewing all this in my head as I bound pell-mell through chest high grass. I've lost track of where the lions are so I don't have any idea if I'm being food or not. I am suddenly struck by what for me is a recurring realization, "You know, I've had better plans than this..." Luckily, for this adventure I am not in charge. As I have been for three days, I am following after my guide Maekaretso (Mike).

We quickly climb a termite mound and survey the swishing grass. We are looking for two tawny heads bobbing through the sea of flaxen brush, but they are not to be found. For now at least, we are not food. We go back and check the tracks, wondering if they were really lion, or cheetah like the one we had startled earlier. They looked like lion, but we can only find cheetah tracks so in the end, we are unsure.

Lion Track
Over the past three days I've learned a lot about tracking game from Mike. Lion tracks are actually easy, they look a lot like what you would find in the litterbox, but about the size of my hand. Lion dung is also readily identifiable. It would seem that impala fur doesn't digest very well and the tufts sticking out of the small mounds are a giveaway.

Elephant dung is also hard to miss. It comes in huge piles of chunks the size of bread loaves. Just by virtue of their size, elephants are on the same level of "in chargeness" as lions. The elephants cause huge amounts of damage, knocking down large trees and digging up small ones all in search of a tasty morsel. Our strategy for dealing with them is to give them plenty of room and to try not be noticed by staying downwind. The large bulls didn't worry Mike, but he got very nervous when we found the round, soda-bottle sized tracks of a small calf. Having calves about makes the mothers unpredictable and we gave the family group a wide berth.

It's important to err on the side of safety, because we are traveling by foot and dugout canoe (mokoro) with no protection other than Mike's knowledge of the bush. On our first day out Mike poled us several hours deep into the maze of waterways that comprise the delta. We then made a camp and based our excursions from there.

Travel By Mokoro

Each day we do morning and evening game walks while napping through the afternoon heat. I am probably seeing less than I would from a radio guided Land Rover, but it's a completely different experience knowing that everything is on the animals terms.

The View From the Mokoro
I'm amazed at how timid the animals are here. In Hlueweuwe and Kruger Parks they must be conditioned to cars, because I could drive to within a few meters of them. But here in the delta, almost everything runs away before I get within range of my 70 mm lens never mind my no-zoom digital camera.

There is plenty to see from a distance though. Each day we see large herds of zebra eating the green grass in the shallow water. The antelope range from the small impala seen everywhere to the larger tsessebe, wildebeast, and kudu.

Mike and I are both fond of the giraffe that we often see in groups of four to seven. Mike likes them because they are completely non-threatening, I like them because they are fun to watch. They can't reach the water to drink without spreading their front legs wide in an ungainly and vulnerable pose. When they run, their necks bob out of sync with the their bodies so the always look like they are one step from falling apart like a badly assembled toy. On one of our walks we found a giraffe skeleton, and Mike showed me that they only have seven vertebrae in their necks, the same number humans have.

Invariably the walks have long stretches where we don't see anything. We are supposed to be concentrating hard, listening carefully for elephants shaking trees or animal cries. We constantly scan the ground for tracks and dung while we watch the grass for snakes and the trees for leopard. All while keeping our eyes open for animals that are masters of camouflage. At least in theory. Right about the time I'm not watching anything but Mike's heals something exciting always happens, we'll hear a lion roar or flush a cheetah and then run for a better view. That is bush walking, lots of trudging punctuated by short moments of excitement or terror.

At night we cook our dinners and then leave the fire burning to discourage elephant visits while we crawl into the canvas tents that are supposed to confuse large predators. It is a pleasant existence, but all to soon my four days are over and it is time for us to return to the relative luxury of Oddball's camp.

The camp is a rough hewn restaurant and bar set on the shore of a main tributary. It is surrounded by chalets and permanent tents and during tourist season the only way there from Maun is by air to their dirt strip in a small plane. The mokoro safaris run by Oddball's have your first and last nights in the camp with the other nights spent in the bush.

The Okavango Delta From the Air

The delta itself is 16,000 sq km (6240 sq miles) of islands, marshes and desert sands. It is formed by the Okavango river which flows down from Angola. Instead of reaching the sea the river soaks into the Botswana desert forming a lush environment for the wildlife.


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