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Giraffes, With Amarula

by
Dave Palmer
photos by the author, except as noted

all photos and text are ©2001,
and may not be used without permission

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OK, so here's the thing I don't get: why is a guy like me-somebody who appreciates the comforts available in life, somebody who likes being able to turn a dial and make the air cooler or hotter-why do I constantly find myself out in the middle of nowhere, cut off from air conditioning, refrigerators, the Net, and the dozen- and-one other creature comforts of my familiar cocooned artificiality?

And AFRICA? Great googly moogly. On top of everything else, a locale where I'm no longer at the top of the food chain, where I actually become a menu option for all creatures great and small.

Well, it was the eclipse that got me. A total solar eclipse is a breathtaking event, unlike anything else in life...but they have this annoying habit of only occurring out of doors. And frequently, wayyy out of doors. Like Africa. Like northern Zimbabwe, a full day's drive away from even the thin veneer of civilization of the Harare Sheraton.

Seeing a total solar eclipse tends to make converts out of people. They become "shadow chasers," the mostly-unknown subculture of people who trek all over the world seeking a few minutes here and there of totality, the Grail of the eclipse worshiper.

This was to be my third eclipse. I'd been to Mexico in 1991 and Romania in 1999. Also along was Pam Bloxham, who had been to both, and Dave & Kathy Lindquist, who had been to the Romania eclipse. The first-timer (almost) in our group was Ron Ebert, who had been in Germany for the 1999 eclipse, but got clouded out, about the most heart-breaking thing that can happen to an eclipse chaser.

The eclipse was on June 21, 2001, which was winter down there, but fortunately, it was dry winter...and, it turns, out, also the best time of the year to visit the area, not only because the weather is nice, but because most of the water holes have dried up and the animals tend to congregate in larger numbers at fewer spots, making them easier to find. As far as eclipse weather, we had a better than 80% chance of clear skies.

In 2000, when we first started planning the trip, the first thing we had to decide was exactly where we wanted to go. The path of totality typically runs for several thousand kilometers, but some spots along the path are better than others. All other things being equal, you try to get to the center point of the eclipse, where the length of totality is at a maximum. For this eclipse, that would be nearly five minutes. Unfortunately, that point was about 1000 km out to sea, off the west coast of Africa, and none of us were thrilled with the idea of a long sea cruise.

The first place it hit land was actually a worse choice: Angola. Landmines and gunfire can put an awful damper on the eclipse-viewing experience. Finally, we settled on Zimbabwe, which has its problems (which got worse later), but seemed a fair compromise. Since this would be our first, and maybe only time to visit Africa, we also wanted to get in some of the "African experience," lions and tigers and...um, well, lions and elephants and whatever.

The next thing we discovered is that there are basically two levels of Africa tourism: really roughing it, which is a little pricey, and anything better, which is BREATHTAKINGLY expensive. We finally settled on a package eclipse tour to Zimbabwe and Botswana, which came with the staggering price tag of SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS. Ack. And that was from New York. Starting in Los Angeles cost us about another $400. The length of totality we would get would be about three minutes. Two thousand bucks a minute...

And the next shock was the luggage limit. About half the trip would consist of flying out to remote safari camps in little bush planes, and our luggage weight limit would be just 10 kg (22 lbs) per person. Hey, whaddya want for your lousy $6000? The trouble was, my camera gear alone was about 8 kg. However, the travel agent assured us that we could average out the weight among all our luggage, and it probably wouldn't be a problem. Probably?

So began the great Expedition Outfitting Phase. In reading up on the region, the first thing I discovered was that I owned no clothing that was suitable for going out into the African bush. When you're in such an environment, it is strongly advisable to wear colors that look like the surrounding landscape, khakis, dark greens, that sort of thing. Wearing loud or vivid colors is a little like waving a big flag that says "hot lunch here" for the animals. I read that some safari guides will even refuse to take you out in the bush if you're not dressed appropriately.

So, I had to buy khaki clothes, which I owned none of. Fortunately, khaki was trendy at the time, so it was easy to find, but I also had to search for clothing that was extra light, to try and meet the weight limits. Trying to decide on what to take was difficult, because the information we got was sketchy at best, and frequently contradictory. We heard that it could get down to freezing at night. We heard that we should take a jacket and tie.

The luggage weight limit technically referred to checked bags, so I decided I could circumvent it by wearing as much of my gear as possible. I bought a nice Domke photographer's vest that held all of my photo gear except the tripod. Of course, the bush planes can only carry so much weight total, so this was kinda cheating...but I did manage to lose 4.5 kg (10 lbs) between the time we signed up and the time we left, so I figured I was "owed" that much.

But I finally got my gear together...and it only cost about another $700, once I added in the new clothes, a fancy new geared head for my Bogen tripod, the photo vest, and assorted other little goodies. Hey, if you're blowing $6000 on a one-time trip to Africa, you don't wanna play it cheap on your gear.

The tour operator told us that we had the option of leaving some luggage behind in Victoria Falls, and getting it back after the Botswana bush camps, so I eventually wound up with my notorious "body bag," a large, heavy canvas military-style duffel bag that would weigh in at some 35 kg by the end of the trip. Inside, I had a second, lighter nylon bag of clothes and stuff that I'd pared down to less than 9 kg. We were promised most of the camps would have laundry service, so I kept everyday clothing to a minimum.

And there was the health issue. We were heading to a place in the world where merely dipping your toe in a river could result in a case of Zambezi purple spotted bleeding death fever or something. So we started checking up on what vaccinations and precautions we should take. Again, we got a lot of sketchy and conflicting information, but the ONE thing that EVERY health source agreed on was that we should take along US-made condoms. AIDS isn't just serious over there, it's a grim fact of everyday life. We finally settled on protection from hepatitis A & B and malaria. I was...er..."lucky" in that I'd already had hep A, so I was immune from further infection. The hep B vaccine was a series of three shots, and for malaria, we got Lariam (more about which later).

Then the political situation in Zimbabwe started going downhill. Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia back in the British Empire days, had won its independence from England back in 1980, but has still had a lot of white/black tension since. The latest wrinkle was that the government had started allowing the seizure of white-owned farms by black squatters. In many cases, the new tenants were not farming the land, so a food crisis developed. People were being killed over the color of their skin. There were isolated riots. The UK cut off some of its economic aid to the country, and a few foreign companies left, declaring that the country was "no longer under rule of law." There were coup rumors. Angola was starting to look like a more attractive choice..

Our schedule called for us to fly from New York to Johannesburg, then up into Harare, the capital, spend the night there, then drive up north the next day to the camp where we would see the eclipse. After that, we would drive to Kariba, catch a plane over to Victoria Falls, spend a day there, then head over to Botswana and spend a week at bush camps in the Okavango Delta. We were quite worried about the Zimbabwe part of the trip, and all agreed we would feel much better when we finally made it to Botswana.

Originally, the travel agency had booked us into a LA-NY flight that touched down in NY just a few hours before the Africa plane was due to leave, and THAT made us nervous as well. A half-hour delay here or there, and we could end up missing the Africa flight. If we missed that flight, we would miss the eclipse; there would be no way to catch up in time. But by booking our own LA-NY (and back) flight, we lost the protection of the tour package if anything went wrong.

We finally decided to give ourselves PLENTY of breathing room to make the Africa connection by flying out to NY three days early and spend the weekend touring Long Island. More money, of course. On the return, we had something like a five-hour layover scheduled in NY, which didn't sound appealing, but again, the possible alternative was missing the flight by 5 minutes and having to buy another airline ticket.

See, now THIS is what you wanna spend $6000 of vacation money on. Stress, uncertainty, risky gambles, and doubt.

Finally, June 15 rolled around, and we were off. Our schedule required us all to drag our tired butts out of bed in the middle of the night, some of us more so than others. I was "lucky." I got to sleep in until 3:30 in the morning. Ron was coming in from near Palm Springs.

For the flight to NY, we'd hunted down a "bargain" airfare, and wound up on National Airlines. I find airline seats narrow and uncomfortable even on good airlines, the ones on the National flight were just miserable, easily the worst airline seats I'd ever encountered. Our flight had a stopover in Las Vegas, so a good number of people onboard were on their way there. Sitting right behind me was a noisy gaggle of late- twentysomething party girls. One of them was getting married in August, and they were heading to Vegas in June to get a head start on getting drunk. Despite the fact that it was 8 in the morning, they couldn't even get through the brief trip from LA to Vegas without drinks.

After a one-hour layover in Las Vegas, where we resisted the urge to play the "convenient" slot machines in the terminal, we pressed on to NY, and arrived late in the afternoon to typical June weather there, hot and humid. We made our way to the baggage claim at JFK airport and waited for our bags...and waited. And waited. Every once in awhile, one or two bags would come dribbling down the belt, but it took over an hour before we finally had everything in hand. Then we went to get the shuttle bus to take us to the rental car center. And we waited. And waited...but this time, outside in the stifling humidity. We finally discovered that you actually have to CALL the car rental company to pick you up, and by the time we made it out of the airport, it had taken more than three hours, nearly as long as the cross-country flight itself.

We headed out to Long Island and checked into a dumpy budget motel in Massapequa that featured a handwritten sign in the office reading "no refunds after 10 minutes." Yeah, one of those kinda places. Ron had grown up in the area, and much of his family was still living there, so he headed off to bunk at his brother's place. Much later, we finally sat down to dinner at a real NY-style diner, where we found the food surprisingly good.

Saturday morning, we headed out to Port Jefferson on the northern part of the island, one of those quaint little seaside tourist-trap villages, and spent some time wandering around. It was just warm enough and just humid enough to be unpleasant. Later, we headed south and drove along Fire Island.


Montauk Point


Sunday, we schlepped all the way out to the end of Long Island, to the Montauk Point light house. There was a light fog, which cut down the heat considerably. After touring the light house, we walked the beach below the cliffs, all the way around the point. Just about the time we decided it was time to go, we heard the first clap of thunder, so we hightailed it back towards the van, and almost made it before the sky opened up and a heavy rain started pouring down.


The light at Montauk
Photo by David Lindquist

Ron walks down the hill from the lighthouse

We'd noted earlier that the traffic heading away from Montauk was quite heavy, and with the downpour, it was miserable. We crawled along for a couple hours before making it back to the freeway.

Ron, like most native New Yorkers, was always going on about how Californians can't make decent bagels, and was keen for us to nosh on some real NY bagels and kosher deli. We stopped by a bagel shop on our way out of Montauk, but by the time we finally made it back into Massapequa, we found that all the kosher delis were already closed. Between the bagels we had Sunday and the ones we got the next day, I have to say that I just don't see that much difference between NY and California bagels. The NY bagels were a bit larger, but that was about it. Mind you, I'm making the comparison here based on good California bagels, not the pretend ones you find in donut shops and the 7-11.

Monday was our day to leave for Africa. So OF COURSE the humidity broke, and the weather was quite nice. We didn't need to be to the airport until the afternoon, so we finally got our kosher deli and some more bagels, and found a spot by a marina to have lunch. Like the bagels, the NY kosher deli stuff was good, but I think the places along LA's Fairfax Avenue could compare favorably. I remain skeptical that New York is keeping any fantastic kosher deli or bagel-making secrets from the rest of the country.

By late afternoon, we were in a holding pattern in the airport terminal, waiting to board the plane, and we met some of the other people on the tour, about 20 in total. We had more worry as we waited, because Jim Huddle, the tour's official astronomer, hadn't shown up yet. In addition to being the tour's official rep, he also was holding all of our in-Africa plane tickets and such. Finally, he did show up. Turns out that he and several other people on the tour had taken flights from their homes that had narrow connection windows to the Africa flight, and some of the flights had been delayed. But by boarding time, everyone was there.

Although we were all excited about finally getting on with the trip, none of us were thrilled with the immediate prospect of spending some 14 hours cooped up on a plane. See, coach airline seats and me just don't get along. I have fairly broad shoulders, considerably broader than the width of your typical airline seat. So if there's anybody next to me, I have to scrunch in my shoulders, which gets excruciatingly painful after a surprisingly short time. Getting an aisle seat helps matters a bit, but long-distance flying still remains low on my list of favorite activities.

As the boarding moved along, we had a brief moment of hopefulness when we noticed that most of the rear of the plane was unoccupied, promising the possibility of actually stretching out a bit on those Clive Barker torture racks the airlines whimsically call "seats."

Alas, it was not to be. At the last minute, like a biblical swarm of locusts, a jabbering horde of Teenage Mutant Christian Missionaries descended on us, and filled nearly every last seat. I got several next to me, oh joy, oh joy.

These stalwart little Soldiers for Jesus were heading to South Africa to teach the good word to the heathen savages. I would have thought that they'd already heard it, what with TV and the Internet, but what do I know? Anyway, it really made one long for the days of cannibals and big iron pots...

Just to add to the fun, take-off was delayed for nearly an hour, and we finally got off the ground around 6:45 in the evening. After take-off, the wardens, or shepherds, or whatever the twentysomethings who were in charge of the missionaries were called, came around and gathered up all their passports and reminded them of the rules--for example, they couldn't watch the in-flight movies. Guess an edited-for-airlines version of "The Wedding Planner" was just too racy for their impressionistic young minds.

When you're flying within the US, or say, from LA to Europe, you get to expect that the airline is going to make one or more stops, which seem mostly calculated just to honk you off and make your travel ordeal longer, and gives the airline more opportunity to misdirect your luggage. But if you refer to a map of the world, you'll see a rather noticeable lack of land between New York and South Africa. I believe they call it "the Atlantic Ocean." Anyway, you would expect that a flight between those two points would be nonstop.

And you'd be wrong.

Because of fuel shortages in Africa, we had to make a stop at a mid-Atlantic gas station on a teensy little rock in the middle of nowhere, the island of Sal in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Senegal. We came down at something like 1 in the morning NY time, and were allowed to actually get off the plane for an hour or so while they refueled. The missionaries were not allowed off the plane, guess the shepherds thought they might be corrupted by the lure of cheap Toblerone in the duty-free shop.

Even though it was something like 4 in the morning local time, it was nonetheless hot and humid on Sal. Never quite figured out what time it was, as the only clock in the airport was stuck on 17:23.

Sal Airport, 4 a.m.

Back in the air again, and more endless hours of flying, and we finally met the Sun coming up over the southern Atlantic. I was getting pretty loopy by that time. I've never been able to sleep on an airliner, no matter how tired I am. On top of everything else, I was now south of the equator for the first time in my life, so the Earth was turning backwards to boot...or something like that.

I'd left my watch on New York time, and when we finally touched down in Johannesburg, it was showing 10 a.m. Tuesday. But it was late afternoon local time, and my head just didn't really care at that point. Then, it was more mind-numbing waiting for our flight up to Harare, and then another too-small, too-crowded airline ride north.

We got into Harare around 9 p.m. local time, and then played the hurry-up-and-wait game in the line for immigration. Couldn't help but notice that there was a portrait of Zimbabwe's president Mugabe hanging above almost every door in the airport. But at last, we were outside the airport and really in Africa. We were met by UTc, the local tour company contracted for the trip, and taken by bus to the Harare Sheraton.

The streets of Harare looked pretty grim in places, with dozens of people sleeping on the sidewalks and makeshift campfires by the curb. When we pulled up at the Sheraton, we were met by a large retinue of native singers and dancers. I stood there just numbly staring, utterly brain-dead for a few minutes, until it occurred to me that this was probably the sort of thing I should be photographing.

It was an enormous relief to finally step into a nice room with a big comfy bed, but our night was not over yet, we still had a "welcome to Africa" dinner to go to. This would have been a much nicer affair if we weren't all so brain fried.

The next morning, everything was better. Although it would take a couple days to completely get past the jet lag, the six or seven hours of sleep I'd gotten were sorely needed. A copy of the Harare Herald left outside our door had a page of articles about the eclipse. Along with the usual "don't look directly at the Sun" warnings, one of the articles was headlined "Traditionalists warn of bad omen." Some excerpts:

While the modern world is euphorically awaiting
the once-in-a-lifetime wonder of the total solar eclipse
tomorrow afternoon, traditionalists in Zimbabwe are
wishing it never happens, experts said this week.

African traditionalists regard the convergence of the
moon and the sun as "kuwora kwezuva - rotting of the sun"
which they say is a bad omen that is preceded by misfortunes
caused by a vengeful spirit called Maruvembere, which
punishes evil-doers.

[T]he Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association [Zinatha] warned of new incurable diseases, deaths of prominent people and natural disasters as some of the misfortunes that might befall Zimbabweans after Thursday.

Aside from the fact that they apparently cannot distinguish "preceded by misfortunes" from "after Thursday," predicting the "deaths of prominent people" in that part of Africa is a little like predicting earthquakes in LA.

The Zinatha national executive met on Monday to deliberate on the
phenomenon and work out plans on how to help the nation if, as they
anticipated, their expertise was required after the eclipse.

'I can assure you the Gods are not happy,' said Zinatha spokesman Mr
Peter Sibanda. 'These natural occurrences such as floods caused by
cyclones and the eclipse are not a mere coincidence. They are signs
of the punishment we are going to receive from our ancestors.

Mr Mugovera Karumba (80) of Kambuzuma agreed with Zinatha that
an eclipse was a sign of bad things to come.

'I am surprised that people are taking it lightly and even joke about it,'
said Mr Karumba, who recalled how a whole family perished following
an eclipse 30 years ago.

These guys are really gonna be upset when they discover that another total eclipse is due to roll through the area in December of 2002.

After a quick breakfast, we bundled into the UTc busses, and headed off north toward our first safari camp, up near Mana Pools national park. The drive was mostly scenic and loaded with photo opportunities, but that's the chief disadvantage of taking a packaged tour, you can't stop at every photogenic dead tree you see.

We also passed more than one checkpoint manned by armed guards, sometimes police, sometimes just local guys with guns. One roadblock, outside the town of Chinhoyi, took us a particularly long time to get through, and we learned from our driver that the area was having local elections, and the guards were there to keep away outside troublemakers wanting to stir up protest or anything. The town's emblem had crossed AK-47 machine guns on it.

Around 1 in the afternoon, we pulled into Makuti, and transferred to safari jeeps, our main mode of transport for the rest of the trip. These are big, beefy 4-wheel-drive vehicles with bench seats for about 10 people, designed to slog around in the bush chasing wild animals. Over the course of the trip, we experienced several different variations of this vehicle, some of them better than others. You quickly discover, for example, that you don't want to ride in one that has a metal crossbar just inches above your head. We eventually found that it is also the custom to stay with one vehicle and one guide/driver for the entire length of your stay at a camp. Some guides are much more skillful than others, and getting a good one can vastly improve your safari experience. The catch, of course, is knowing in advance which jeep to get into.

Another hour or so of driving on paved roads, and we reached the end of the pavement and headed out on the dirt roads common to the wilderness areas. These roads are typically bone-jarringly bumpy and dusty, so a hat with a chin strap and some sunglasses or other eyewear are a good idea here.


Elephants sucking mud on the Chewore River
Up to this point, we had had only a few fleeting glimpses of wildlife, mostly small troops of baboons glaring at us from the side of the road. But as we headed deeper into the wilderness, we began to see the occasional impala or kudu. An hour or so down the dirt road, we crossed a bridge over the mostly-dry Chewore River bed, and saw our first elephants, a pair of them burrowing their trunks in the dirt looking for hidden wet patches. Baobab trees, with their ludicrously thick trunks and nearly insignificant branches, were everywhere. In some places, the road had been split in two around a large baobab.
In the late afternoon, we turned off the main dirt road and trundled up a wide path in the bush towards the safari camp, pulling in at a little after 5 in the afternoon. This was our first impression of safari camps, and it didn't bode well. It was quite...er...rustic, most of the lodgings were just two-person tents. There were a few permanent structures, and Dave & Kathy and Pam and I had arranged to book one of them, a concrete block box with a thatched grass roof on it, and four small beds. Ron shared one of the tents with Jim. It wasn't really a closed building in any meaningful sense, the windows were covered only by large metal grates to keep out anything larger than a small bird, and there were fairly large gaps between the roof and walls. The beds at least all had mosquito netting above them. Nonetheless, our "room" was the luxury accommodation in the camp, it even had its own attached bathroom...and that is an important consideration in a safari camp. Crossing even a few meters of open ground to go to the john in the middle of the night is actually quite dangerous; we heard leopards, lions, and hyenas outside every night. Our room also had electric lights, but they only worked during the few hours at night when the camp's generator was turned on, and one of them not very well even then.


Our expensive, yet rustic accommodations
Photo by Kathy Lindquist

All the charm and comfort of a minimum-security prison camp
Photo by Pam Bloxham

There were actually quite a few things we didn't like about this place. It was normally a hunting camp, and pictures of "Great White Hunters" with dead animals lined the walls of the dining area. There were brochures that listed the prices for killing various animals, $10,000 for an elephant and so on. But the thing we found the most disturbing was the racial divide in the staff. The owners and guides were all white, the menial workers all black, and it seemed this camp was a little bit of old Rhodesia preserved. The black workers went around with kind of stooped shoulders, and would never seem to look a white person directly in the eye. The owner of the camp, a large, loud man, never seemed to just talk to the black staff, he was always yelling at them, sometimes in English, sometimes in Shona, if he didn't want the rest of us to know what he was saying.


The eclipse camp
Jim Huddle assured us off on the side that our travel agent wouldn't normally book us into such a place, and that it was chosen solely for its favorable eclipse location, all of which we later found to be true.

The food there was good but not great; it reminded me of the description of the cattle drive chow in the film City Slickers: "brown, hot, 'n plenty of it." In addition to more familiar fare like chicken, we also got to sample several different game dishes, like kudu and eland.

While we were milling around in the dinner/socializing area (called a "boma") before dinner, somebody handed me a shot glass with a cream liqueur in it, and said, "here, try this." And so was I introduced to Amarula, a marvelous drink distilled from the fruit of the Marula tree, somewhat like an African Bailey's Irish Creme. The label of the bottle has the image of an elephant on it, and we were told that the elephants eat fermented Marula fruit in the wild and get tipsy. Facing a drunken elephant is something that is amusing to imagine, but probably wouldn't be as much fun in real life.

The first shot of Amarula was free: that's how they get you hooked, the rat bastards. After that, you had to pay the regular prices at the bar for it.

Shortly after dinner, I returned to our cabin to get something, and discovered something I hadn't noticed before: the door had no outside knob on the handle, just the spindle sticking out. I went back to the main room and mentioned this to our host. He told me that it had never had a knob, you have to open the door by bashing through it with your shoulder, cop-style. Really. I waited for a few seconds for the punchline, but it never came: he wasn't kidding. Hey, whaddya want for your lousy $6000?

It got cold overnight. Maybe down to the freezing range. I was glad I'd brought my expedition-grade Patagonia thermal underwear, I really needed it. Nobody really slept well that first night, still too much jet lag, spooky animal noises, and people snoring...and eclipse anxiety.

Thursday, June 21, was eclipse day, the whole reason for the trip. The weather had been fantastic so far, hardly a cloud in the sky since we'd arrived in Africa. But as the morning wore on, the unthinkable happened: clouds blew in, seemingly out of nowhere. I watched them move for awhile, and they seemed to be mostly up north, perhaps following the Zambezi River, and mostly out of our way. Then, a second front blew in from the south, and we began to get truly nervous.

But after a couple of anxious hours, the clouds just vanished. By the time we got to the eclipse viewing site just after noon, the sky was clear pretty much horizon-to-horizon. And it was when we got to the site that we found why we had been booked into this camp: the site was about as ideal as you could hope for. About a 10-minute drive from the camp, it was on a hill with an excellent view for almost 360 degrees around. The camp staff had set up an open tent as a makeshift boma, and laid out lunch and drinks to enjoy as we waited for first contact, the moment when the Moon first begins to slide in front of the Sun, at about 1 p.m. They even brought chairs.


Our eclipse viewing site

As the eclipse proceeded along to second contact, eclipse fever started spreading through the group. Even the camp staff and guides started to show an interest, as they looked through eclipse glasses or telescopes set up around the area. As more of the Sun is eclipsed, the light doesn't just get dim, it gets...weird. That's the best I can describe it; it's sort of a dim but very contrasty light, and it lets you know something odd is happening if you didn't already know.



Dave & Ron double-team a guide on the
physics of shadow bands
Photo by Pam Bloxham
Somebody had brought along a white sheet to lay on the ground to catch a glimpse of shadow bands, an elusive light interference phenomenon that sometimes happens just before and after totality, and this was also a good surface for projecting pinhole images on. All you need do is poke a small pinhole in a sheet of cardboard or something, or even just make a small opening between your fingers, and you fashion a makeshift pinhole camera that gives you an image of the partially-eclipsed Sun. Somebody even used a wicker hat to project dozens of little crescent Sun images on the sheet.

I'd never seen shadow bands myself, and they don't always appear. But seconds before totality, somebody called out "shadow bands!" and sure enough, there they were, very faint dark bands moving across the sheet like ripples on a pond.



And then the Sun went out. The people who don't understand what all the fuss is about get converted in that moment. Click here for more photos of totality.

Some people cheered, others watched silently in awe. Myself and few others had no time for that, we were frantically trying to squeeze out the maximum number of photos of the event in the all-too-brief three minutes. I think I managed to actually stop once or twice and just look at the glowing black hole in the sky, but the whole memory is kind of a blur now.

This was a really excellent eclipse, even by the usual standards. The Sun was near "solar max," the peak of solar storm activity that runs in an 11-year cycle, so the corona was particularly large and complex, and there were several large red prominences visible.

The other thing that astonishes first-time eclipse viewers is just how fast three minutes can slip by. All too soon, we reached third contact, then end of totality, to my traditional, plaintive wail of "not YET!!!" Once again, the shadow bands made their brief appearance.


David with the bubbly, aprés totality
Afterwards was the usual: hugging, exultation, the comparing of notes, "did you see those prominences?" And champagne. That seems to have become part of our post- eclipse ritual since Romania.




The African Expeditionary Force: David, Kathy, Pam, Dave, Ron
After the excitement of totality, the interval to fourth contact, when the Moon finally slips past the Sun, is an anti-climax, and only the real hard-core eclipse fanatics spend a lot of time watching it. Really, it's pretty much the same show as first-to-second contact, but played in reverse. After a half-hour or so of celebrating and taking the occasional peek at the regrowing Sun, we began to pack up and make the preparations for return to camp.

Watching the Sun come back

And so it was back to the realities of safari camp life. We had all sent out clothes for washing the day before, and when we got back from the eclipse, our clothes were waiting for us in our room...sort of. Although we had taken care to make neat, separate bundles, al the washing from the camp had gotten somewhat jumbled along the way, so we spent much of the afternoon in clothing exchanges, trying to find the owner of this or that shirt. I still have a pair of black socks that aren't mine; I didn't notice them until after the trip.

Camp at sundown.

That night before dinner, I had a chance to perform my close-up magic act and add Zimbabwe to my performance resume. There is a standard joke in magic: "I'm an international performer. When I'm out of work, I'm out of work all over the world."


Keeping reasonably warm on the road to Mana
Photo by Pam Bloxham
Friday morning was to be our first real game drive, out to Mana Pools (mana means "four" in the Shona language). The best time to see animals is the morning and afternoon, so we had to drag our butts out of bed at 5:30 in the morning to make the three-hour drive north to the waterhole area around the Zambezi River. We set out from camp about 6:30, and it was still quite cold; riding in an open jeep didn't help matters. Those of us who had planned for such eventualities were glad we'd brought warm clothes for the ride.
Just a short distance out of camp, our driver stopped, saying he heard some kind of knocking noise. One of the other jeeps pulled up behind us, and after a bit of consultation, they decided the problem was with the brakes, and the solution offered was "try not to use the brakes much." Well, that didn't work very well for long, so we stopped again and all piled out, while the drivers pulled off one of the wheels to examine the brakes. Turned out to be a broken spring, so they just removed it and put everything back together, and we were on our way once more.

How many safari guides does it take to change a...?
This view is what the lions call "the breakfast buffet."

The old and the new: the park ranger's office at the Nyakasikana Gate of Mana Pools has a traditional grass roof with a solar cell mounted on top.
About three hours later, we finally reached the pools area, and stopped by the side of Long Pool. We got out and hiked a short way through the bush to the waterside...but not too close. One of the guides advised us that a big crocodile could come up out of the water and snatch you from over four meters away before you would even see it.

And there were crocs, basking on the far shore. And a small pod of hippopotami in the water. Despite their ungainly appearance and the cutesy image people may have gotten from Disney cartoons, hippos are extremely dangerous animals, and are thought to be one of the deadliest animals in Africa. Most experts rate the most dangerous animals in this order: 1) man 2) mosquitoes 3) hippos 4) crocs. We had all present at the waterside, except (probably) for mosquitoes, the weather being too cold for them.


Hippos and a big croc at Long Pool
Several times, I saw trails of bubbles on the water's surface move towards us, but they would always turn away, or more ominously, vanish.

Then we headed back to the jeeps and drove around the park for awhile, getting some good (if fairly distant) views of elephants, baboons, impala--lots of impala, waterbucks, zebras, warthogs.

We stopped for lunch in a large open area by the road, and found the skull of a baboon with a large hole in the top of it. Leopard, the guide said. And then we set out on one of the most dangerous things we did in Africa, a hike on foot. Mana Pools is somewhat different from other wildlife areas in that you are allowed to hike around off the roads if you want. But you take a big risk. When you're in a vehicle, you're relatively safe, because the animals apparently lack the concept of "inside." The vehicle just looks like one big animal to them, so as long as you don't threaten them, they pretty much ignore you. But the guides have a saying: "step out of the vehicle, step into the food chain." We were out of the vehicle. One of the guides knew of a mostly-unknown waterhole a ways off the road, so we set out for that.

The advantage of staying in the vehicle: a baboon skull
with a large, leopard-shaped hole in it.

Safari guide Steve shows off his stylish yet practical bush hiking ensemble: cool, loose-fitting shirt and shorts in muted colors, sturdy hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat...and a bloody great elephant gun.
The guides warned us to stay together, not to make sudden moves, and to not make too much noise. One of them slung a rifle over his shoulder. Did I say a rifle? Well, it was actually a little closer to a cannon. It had a barrel you could stick your thumb down, .458 caliber to be exact, big enough to take down an elephant. Nervous? Nahhhhh, what's to be nervous about?

Well, howzabout something big and mean enough to eat a hippo:

So we crept into the bush, making slightly less noise than a herd of charging elephants. Some folks weren't exactly dressed for the trip, either, wearing blues and reds and other colors that stand out just a bit too much when you're trying to stay off the menu. Some were carrying electronic cameras that beeped, buzzed, and generally made all kinds of racket. One of the guides stayed at the rear of the group, making sure that nobody got picked off from behind.


This way, lads! An elephant leads the 11:30 impala parade
We saw large numbers of baboons, some elephants, waterbucks, the pervasive impalas, but nothing that looked at us like lunch, and nothing very close-up; the animals of Mana Pools are apparently familiar enough with people to know to keep a good distance from them.
Scenes around Mana Pools:


One of the omnipresent termite mounds



Not a photo trick: this mound really is this big, about 5-6 meters tall.

In Africa, even the trees are predators.
A strangler fig tree grows up around an existing
tree, entwining it and eventually killing it off

Weaverbird nests, always built on the north side of trees, to
keep the eggs warm in the afternoon while the adults search for food


The Zambezi River, looking across to Zambia

But we all made it back to the jeeps with our full compliment of limbs, and then spent another couple of hours driving around the park. Then, it was another dusty, bumpy three-hour ride back to camp. Along the way, we were told that the road had actually been in worse shape for the last three years or so, and it had just recently been re-graded in preparation for the eclipse tourist influx.
The road back to camp cuts around a baobab
The next morning, we were up even earlier, 5 a.m., and it was our last day in this camp. We loaded up all our baggage into the cargo carrier, and then headed out towards the main road. A short ways out of camp, our driver suddenly stopped the jeep, and pointed. "Lions," he said. And there they were, two of them, crossing the road maybe 20 meters in front of us. It was our first lion sighting. The lions contemplated us for a moment, then apparently decided we weren't worth eating, and moved on.

After a couple hours of dirt road, we pulled back onto the paved road, and had to stop for "tsetse fly inspection." A bored-looking man with a can of bug spray walked past the jeep, and stopped once for no apparent reason and delivered a uselessly-brief spritz of insecticide to a an apparently empty spot on the side of the vehicle.

The plan for the day was to drive back to Makuti, transfer back to the buses, and then head on to Kariba, where we would catch a noon plane to Victoria Falls. We would have a couple hours to wander around and do some shopping (the only time we were scheduled to be in an actual town), followed by a sundown cruise on the Zambezi River and dinner at The Boma, a well-known Vic Falls restaurant...that was the plan.

Didn't quite happen that way. When we got to the Kariba airport, we found that our plane was not there, and nobody was really sure where it was. Eventually, we found that our flight would be delayed some four hours. Rather than waste the time at the absolutely featureless Kariba airport, the UTc guys decided to take us into the town for lunch and a quick bit of sightseeing. We went to the Kariba Breezes Hotel for an unremarkable lunch, but those with a shopping need were able to go to a couple of shops there. Then, we took a brief ogle at the Kariba Dam, just over the border from Zambia. On the way back to the airport, we pulled over briefly to watch a small herd of zebra grazing along the side of the road.


Two women carry their shopping across Kariba Dam
towards Zambia.

Welcome to the Kariba Breezes Hotel. You're on your own, mate.



Zebra along the highway near Kariba Airport.

By this time, there were several tour groups piled up at the airport waiting for late planes, and we all waited outside by the runway, swapping our eclipse stories. We came to find out that the Kariba airport isn't exactly what you could call "cutting edge." We watched as they fueled a commuter plane, and it didn't exactly inspire us with confidence. A guy with a bucket...a bucket was shuttling jet fuel to the plane one bucketload at a time. I guess they only had one bucket. When he reached the plane, he would climb up a ladder to the wing, and hand the bucket to another guy on the wing, who then poured it into a funnel with a handkerchief over it as a fuel filter, and into the gas tank. Then the bucket guy would go back for another load. As unbelievable as that was, we also heard a rumor that the people doing the fueling were actually the passengers, not the crew, because nobody from the airport was available to fuel the plane. Welcome to Africa.
Refueling, one bucket at a time

By 3:30 or so, our "noon plane" finally showed up. This was a somewhat larger plane, an old Hawker Siddeley HS748, an ex-military aircraft dating from the mid- 1960's, which one would think was too big an aircraft to be fueled with a bucket and a funnel...and we thought that right up until the moment we saw the pilot get off the plane with a funnel and a ladder. Yes: the airport doesn't even have its own ladder.

At least they didn't try to fill it one bucket at a time. They drove a baggage cart full of plastic fuel cans to the plane, and they poured those in one at a time. While they were sitting there with open containers of aviation fuel, another aircraft pulled up right next to them, and sat there with its engines running.

But finally, we were in the air for our short hop to Victoria Falls. As it turns out, we would have arrived much sooner if we'd simply driven to begin with. By the time we touched down in Vic Falls, it was too late for the river cruise. We pulled into our hotel, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge by about 6:30.


Slightly more upscale lodgings at the Vic Falls Safari Lodge
And what a change from our previous lodgings. This was a very nice hotel, with large rooms with private decks overlooking a waterhole where you could sit and watch the animals...or you could if you actually had any time there. But we didn't, we had to get in, get cleaned up, and then get off to our scheduled dinner.

We dined at The Boma (with a capital "B," as opposed to a regular boma, which is just a meeting/eating place), a very nice buffet-style restaurant which made up for much of the unpleasantness of the day. Although The Boma is really within walking distance of the Safari Lodge, we were driven nonetheless, and were told that it really wasn't safe to walk around after dark, that there were lions and hyenas and such who might be looking for a meal of their own.

The food there ranged from not bad to great. In addition to a lavish salad and desert table, there was a grill where you could select from a variety of exotic meats, such as warthog, eland, wild pig, ostrich...and mopane worms. The latter is not one of those deceptively-named dishes like "Welsh rabbit," they really are...ulp...worms. Or more precisely, the larva of the emperor moth Gonimbrasia belina, which commonly feeds on the leaves of the mopane tree. Mopane worms are quite a popular food in southern Africa, so of course, I had to try them. Mopane worms get several points off for their appearance; they look pretty much the way you would imagine fried caterpillars would look. The taste was not disgusting, but failed to make me a fan, they were dry and a little too gritty, maybe tasting vaguely of veal.
Africa on the plate at The Boma. Mopane worms are at lower right.

On the flip side, I also had some excellent warthog, grilled up in some vaguely-barbecue-tasting sauce. Many of the other dishes were also quite good, but the warthog won the prize that night.

Rounding out the African experience, there were also periodic shows of traditional songs and dances staged by local cultural arts troupes.

Click here to hear a native song




David looks out at the waterhole over breakfast
Photo by Kathy Lindquist
The next morning, we came down to breakfast in the Lodge's restaurant, which overlooks the waterhole, and apparently has quite a problem with marauding monkeys, who slip in and try to help themselves at the buffet. Waiters would come around and throw wadded-up napkins at them. Over breakfast, we had just enough time to reflect on how chuffed we were that we were in this nice place, but had no time to sit back and enjoy it, and then we were back in the buses and off for a whirlwind tour of the falls.

In the competitive world of twiddle-the-qualifications-until-you-achieve-a-record, Victoria Falls holds the honor as "largest sheet of falling water in the world." Although not spectacularly high, only about 100 meters, the Falls are quite long, about 1.7 km. Prior to being "discovered" by David Livingstone in 1855, the Falls had been called "Mosi oa Tunya," or "the smoke that thunders" by the recently-arrived Makalolo people, or "Amanza Thunquayo," "water rising as smoke" by the earlier Ndebele tribes. A statue of Livingston stands next to the Falls, and it was decided at the time of Zimbabwe's independence not to change the name, to maintain a brand familiarity and keep the tourists coming in.

Vic Falls is not your standard water-goes-off-the-side-of-a-cliff type of waterfall, but rather it plunges down a narrow chasm in the ground, and the main viewing area across the river is at the same level as the top of the Falls. The Falls we see today are actually about the eighth incarnation of falling water along that stretch of the Zambezi River. In the last two million years, a series of falls have existed for a time and carved out a series of dramatic gorges downstream (none of which we had time to see..) until the water reached a soft spot in surrounding hard rock and formed the chasm falls seen today. The original Falls was 8 km downstream of the present location.


The constant mist from the waterfall creates a rainbow




The area right across from the Falls gets an almost constant misting of water, and is thus more of a rainforest environment. A footpath traverses the entire length of the Falls, offering several dramatic-and frequently wet-views of the smoking water. I'd read about the necessity of having rain gear when you tour the falls, so I'd brought along some lightweight backpacker's rain gear. But the UTc people had large, heavy raincoats available for us, so I put on one of those for good measure. We started at the west end of the rainforest trail, by the statue of Livingston. At first, I got the impression that the rain gear was not really necessary. There was just a light mist that blew up every once in awhile, and a heavy raincoat was just an encumbrance. But as we headed down the trail, that changed, and there were stretches of the last fourth or so of the trail that were like being in a heavy rainstorm. Despite the raincoats, many of us still emerged at the end soaked through to the skin, and had to spend awhile at the visitor's center back at the start drying out. I think if I went again, I'd bring a towel to leave behind in the bus. And my Nikonos underwater camera. It was pretty much impossible to photograph in many of the overlooks, just too much water coming down.




Ghosts in the mist
Photo by Pam Bloxham

Photo by Kathy Lindquist



Drowned Rat Dave: despite the raincoat, one
still gets a little damp walking near the falls.
Photo by Ron Ebert
In seeing the Falls from the rainforest path, you get some nice close-up views, but you never get to see the big picture. I think a much better way to see the Falls would be by air. There are several companies in the area that will take you up in just about anything that will fly: helicopters, light planes, microlights...and there's even a tethered helium balloon that goes up and down on a 15-minute schedule. Alas, we had time for none of these, the clock was ticking.
By arranging to have our luggage loaded earlier in the day, a few of us did manage to wrangle an hour in the unabashedly-tourist-trap shopping area of the town. We concentrated on "curio row," a street that has a series of established shops at the near end, and then a shark-infested free-for-all of craft sellers at the other end. There is a line where the last permanent shop is, and the freelancers are not allowed to cross it to grab customers; several policemen patrol the area carrying small billy clubs, and it's clear that the freelancers know from experience that you don't cross the line. The cops will also act quickly to shoo away beggars when they see them bothering tourists.
Curio row

When we were getting back on the bus after our tour of the Falls, a horde of craft sellers appeared out of nowhere and pressed against the windows of the bus, trying to make a quick sale. When a cop suddenly appeared on the scene, they scattered faster than a herd of impala at a lion convention.

Vic Falls seems to be pretty serious about keeping the tourist dollars flowing as vigorously as the Falls, the guides told us that crimes against tourists are almost non-existent in the town. That is, if you don't count the cut-throat haggling that goes on at the far end of curio row as a crime. That end of the street isn't for the faint of heart; the sellers are all extremely aggressive, and any eye contact or a glance at their wares is considered a sign of interest. It's normal for them to begin by quoting a price that's four times or more higher than what they want, and then you're expected to haggle them down. The sellers also look you over from head to foot and may offer to trade for any number of things you have on you: a nice pen, sunglasses, athletic shoes, even literally the shirt off your back.

American dollars are not only welcome everywhere, they're usually preferred. The exchange rate for Zimbabwe dollars varies wildly, and you can get up to double the rate of a legit foreign exchange bureau by finding the right street money changer...or, you can wind up with a roll of newspaper or worthless money from other African countries.

There are a few standard craft items that just about everyone there sells: carved wooden hippos, giraffes and lions, tablecloths woven with traditional designs, crudely-made drums, and Zambezi walking sticks. These are rather interesting carved sticks that depict a standard set of images from the culture of the Tonga people who used to live along the Zambezi until the rising waters of Lake Kariba dispersed them in the 1950's. The sticks are properly carved from a single log, and vary considerably in their quality, length, price, and details.

The traditional symbols are a curved, serpent-like head that forms the handle, which depicts Nyaminyami, a spirit god of the Tonga. A spiral shaft below that represents the water of the Zambezi river, and there is usually a fish or two. In the rear is a curved mopane tree. Below that are usually three figures of Tonga people performing a ceremonial dance, and one or more wooden rings below that represent the bangles worn by women during the dances. Below that is a hand gripping a hollow vessel with a loose ball in it, and depicts a magical ball used by Tonga shamans. The end of the stick is a long-stemmed calabash pipe, or "Incelwa," which was used to smoke either tobacco or dagga--- marijuana.




In the shark end of town, I spotted a nice walking stick, but I'm worthless at bargaining, so I got Pam to do the dirty work for me. They initially asked $15, Pam got them down to $9. The difference to me was trivial, and I always feel just a little guilty talking local people down like this (which is, of course, part of their well-rehearsed strategy) over an amount that's trivial to me but significant to them. However, I have read that those who pay the full price without bargaining are actually held in contempt by the locals, and that can even set off disastrous price-hike wars among the sellers, hurting all the businesses in the long run.

So now I had this delicate meter-long carved stick to schlep around, and to try and not get it broken or kill anybody with the pointy end.

After about an hour in the shopping area, the bus returned to collect us, and we set off for Botswana. Zimbabwe and Botswana are a study in contrasts and the shifting fortunes of African politics. Back in the Rhodesia days, Zimbabwe was one of the most prosperous African nations, while Botswana was among the poorest. Of course, some of that prosperity was built on the backs of the original native population, which is why the country still has so much unrest today. Today, the roles have reversed. Zimbabwe seems to be in a downward spiral, with economic woes, and social and political unrest, while Botswana is in fine shape, due mainly to large diamond deposits that have been discovered over the past few decades. The government is stable, and they have enlightened policies balancing tourism with minimal environmental impact. As we crossed the border, a large sign welcomed us to Botswana, and sternly advised that corruption was not tolerated, and we should neither offer nor pay bribes. We got the impression we would like it here, and we were not disappointed, for the most part.

Just over the border, we were required to stop and perform hoof-and-mouth disease decontamination. By the side of the road, there was a shallow pan with a rag in the bottom of it and a canister of disinfectant which was pumped onto the rag. You have to step in the pan and wipe your feet on the rag. Then, of course, you walk back through the dirt, losing the disinfectant off your shoes, and get back into your vehicle and put your feet back down in the same germ-laden places they were in before, so I'm not sure how effective the procedure really is. Also, there was nobody manning the station, it seemed to be purely on the honor system.
Wipe yer hoofs before you come into our country

We were headed towards the Kasane airport, where we would catch the first of our bush planes out to Camp Moremi, situated on the Xakanaxa Lagoon, deep in the eastern part of the Okavango Delta wilderness. Along the way, we spotted a recently-crashed bush plane right by the side of the road, which filled us with a lot of confidence. At Kasane, the bus with our excess heavy luggage went on ahead to the nearby Mowana Safari Lodge, which was to be our last stop, and we were left with only our (supposedly) 10 kg of bush luggage. But as everything was gathered in the airport, it was obvious to me that not everybody in the tour group had bothered to pare their luggage down to the limit...in fact, few had. Some of the bags looked like they might have been a good 15 or even 20 kg, and there was also more than one hard-sided suitcase, which was another thing we had been told from the start was a no-no. The five of us kinda felt like chumps at that point, having spent so much time, effort, and money to get down to the weight limit. Being a devout pessimist (we in the church actually prefer the term "realist"), I had been predicting from the start that we would find this to be the case, that the weight limit wasn't really that restrictive...but there was a limit. Later in the trip, we heard of another tour group that was forced to repack and store their excess luggage.


Don't say "so long," say "ba ba bololang." The Kasane airport.
The Kasane airport was big enough to have an x-ray machine for carry-on bags, but they apparently had not been able to afford the proper training for machine operators. The lone guy at the x-ray machine spent his time feeding bags through, and never even once glanced at the display.

Photo by Kathy Lindquist

After more waiting in a featureless airport, a small fleet of tiny bush planes descended from the sky, and we were finally led out to the runway. These planes were so small that there is actually a different procedure for getting into them depending on where you're sitting. The five of us snagged one plane, the pilot shoehorned us into the teensy seats, and we were off.

Up to this point, the term "safari camp" was not one that filled me with a great deal of fondness, given our experience at the eclipse camp. As we climbed into the Botswana sky, I was picturing another week of sleeping on a hard steel prison-style bunk, mediocre chow, Spartan conditions, and just a lot less gentility than I like from my vacation dollar (especially six thousand of them). When we touched down out in the middle of nowhere on a wide spot of dirt with "runway markers" made from strips of white corrugated tin laid on the ground, I was wistfully wishing for a flood or something that would force us to return to the Vic Falls Lodge.

OK, so I'm not right all the time.

The good folks at Camp Moremi really saw me coming, and they knew how to deal with my type. In general, the camps in Botswana turned out to be great, but Moremi was the unquestioned high point of the trip, let me just get that out of the way at the top.


The bush plane to Moremi

A dirt clearing in the trees: the airstrip at Moremi
Photo by Pam Bloxham

We were greeted at the airstrip by a new set of local guides with their familiar bush jeeps, and by David, the manager of the camp. OK, now I'm jumping ahead again here, but let me go on about this guy for a second. Think of the great BBC TV series "Fawlty Towers," with John Cleese as the comically nasty, inept hotel manager Basil Fawlty. Got that? Now think of the anti-Basil, an immediately-likable, charming, witty individual who seems to be a born host, who is not only good...nay, great at his job, but actually gives you the impression he enjoys doing it. OK, so David wasn't all that, but near as, dammit. In a world where fewer and fewer people seem to give a hoot about their job any more, just the mere fact of a person in charge who seemed to like his work and was good at it to boot is enough to make Camp Moremi a must-visit. Unfortunately, he's not the regular manager, so my whole rant here kinda falls down. But I digress...

As I said before, the guide you start with tends to be the one you stay with, so we played jeep roulette once again, and got lucky this time. We wound up under the wing of Calistus Mpala (Cal for short), the camp's most experienced guide. Since it was getting a little late in the afternoon, our luggage was taken on ahead and we went directly out on a game drive, and I began to get an inkling of the differences between our previous experience and what was in store for us on the rest of the trip.


A lazy, snoozy lion
In Zimbabwe, we rarely got very close to the animals, especially in Mana Pools. They all just seemed to be too wary of humans, vehicle or no. It was different in the Botswana wilderness, most of the animals seemed to be completely acclimated to the presence of the vehicles, and we were able to get quite close to a lot of animals...sometimes uncomfortably close. At one point, Cal pulled over and said, "lion." We started scanning the horizon with our binoculars, but he pointed to a spot not 10 meters away. It took us a second, but we realized we were seeing a large male lion laying on his back in the grass. He wasn't moving at all, and I thought he was dead at first, but if you looked closely, you could see him breathing. He was just sacked out, that's all.

Later in the drive, we came back around that way, and the lion was right side up. We got even closer this time, but the lion just didn't give a fig about us, he was fed and lazy, and he couldn't recognize us in the jeep as People McNuggets. Also, he was busy socializing. Every once in awhile, he would roar out a "song," a sequence of decreasing-length roars that Cal said was his way of locating other lions in the area.

Click here to hear the lion
calling his buddies.

Near the end of the drive, when it was rapidly starting to get dark, we caught a brief sight of our first giraffe.


"This is my best side." The lion sniffs the air, checking for other lions

Just how close were we to that lion? Pretty close...

Why did the impala cross the road? To get away from the big noisy animal with round legs.


Cal prepares to navigate the moat
Photo by Kathy Lindquist

After an hour or so, we headed into camp, and discovered "the moat." Just outside the main gate of the camp, the always-shifting waters of the Okavango Delta had created a small, meter-deep lake across the road. Cal told us to pick up any stuff we had laying on the floor of the vehicle, and we plowed in. At the deepest point, the floor of the jeep was awash, but we made it to the other side. Having to drive through this water every time anyone went in or out of camp was really rough on the vehicles, and they occasionally got stuck and had to be towed out. So one might reasonably ask why the camp owners don't do something about it. Well, they can't. To keep the national wildlife preserves as pristine as possible, the government sets very strict rules on the camps. They aren't allowed to divert water, for example. David later said that the camp had applied for permission to build a bridge across the water, and it was under consideration.

To add to my rapidly-growing appreciation of this place, Charlotte, David's charming and excessively attractive fiancée (lucky sod...) was waiting for us at the gate with a cooler full of warm moist towels to refresh ourselves with. "Oh, yeah," I thought, "I'm gonna like it here." And I was back to being right. All during our all-too-brief stay at Moremi, Charlotte was always waiting for us, smiling winsomely, with the towels when we came back in out of the bush. She was considerably more quiet and reserved than David, but charming nonetheless, and I got the impression that she probably handled a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that allowed David to get out and schmooze with the guests. The pair of them were absolutely first-rate hosts.



David schmoozing

Charlotte with her towels
Photos (2) by Kathy Lindquist

And the facilities in the camp. Wow. To call the accommodations "tents" is to do them a great disservice. Although tents they are, you'd scarcely know it without looking closely. They are built up on permanent, raised wood platforms, and are easily as large as any hotel room, with real beds (indeed, very good beds) and other furniture inside. Indeed, they are really indistinguishable from a "real" room from the inside. Each room has a viewing deck with chairs where you can sit out and watch the wildlife, and a rather luxurious bathroom. The bathrooms are separate from the rooms, but only across a short space on the deck, and reasonably safe to cross even at night. The rooms and bathrooms have two electric light systems, one that runs off the camp generator when it's on, and a second, smaller set that runs off batteries and is available 24 hours a day. The tap water in the camp is perfectly safe to drink.

Pam and I got to our room to find our luggage already there. On one of the tables was a water carafe that had ice---ice! in it, and a jar of fresh, still-warm macaroons. Not for the last time that day, I said to myself "oh, yeah. I'm gonna like it here."

The people at Moremi were not only more attentive to our comfort, but our safety as well. We were warned not to walk the paths between the rooms and the dining room after dark, an escort would come around and collect us as a group. In retrospect, I think all that walking between the room and the boma after dark that I did back in the Zimbabwe camp was probably pretty dangerous. The escorts at Moremi were armed only with powerful flashlights, guns being another thing not allowed in the wildlife preserves. The doors on the rooms and bathroom had no keyed locks, but had turn-bolts, and we were told to always lock them when we weren't in the room. The monkeys had learned how to work the door handles, and could get in and make quite a mess but they hadn't figured out the bolts...yet.

But just then, they were busy with other things. Baboons sleep up in the trees at night for safety, and the higher up in the social order a baboon is, the higher the branch it gets in the tree. That way, if a leopard comes looking for a midnight snack, it will snag one of the junior members first. It's like the method for avoiding becoming lion food on a hike: you don't have to outrun the lion, you just have to outrun the guy next to you.

So around sunset, there's quite a commotion as the baboons wrangle for dominance and the higher branches. You hear this increasingly-shrill monkey alarm as an interloper tries to climb too high and is finally rebuffed: ooo.oooo.OOOO.OOOOOO!.OOOOO!!!!..AAAAUUUUUGGGHHHHH!

At dinnertime, camp staffers came around and got us, and we all headed to the main dining/social building, a permanent two-story building that held the dining room, a lounge, a game viewing deck upstairs, a library, a game room, and a bar. An open bar. A quite well-stocked open bar. The Okavango safari camps are expensive, but meals and drinks are included. They do charge a bit for a few of the snootier beverages, like Glenfiddich or champagne, but a person can get quite well-lubricated on the extensive free stock. Like the free Amarula. Say it with me: f-r-e-e Am-a-ru-la....We spent a half-hour or so drinking and socializing, then we were called into dinner.

At the Botswana camps, we saw none of the ugly racial divide we'd glimpsed in Zimbabwe. We never saw any of the black staff treated as anything less than professionals by the management. David and Charlotte, as well as a couple of the guides sat down with us at dinner, and they started the meal by having the chef come out and announce the menu. The company that runs Moremi also runs two other camps in the area, and we learned that the company actively encourages the employees to work their way up in the organization. DJ, our capable bartender, was studying to become a safari guide. Mary, the chef, had started out as one of the maids. All of them seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs.

David and Charlotte were not the regular managers of Moremi, but rather rotated around the camps, providing vacation relief. The company's policy is that camp managers have to be married couples, but they'd been letting D&C slide for awhile, while slowly increasing the pressure for them to tie the knot. Their wedding was going to be at Moremi, and last a week. They are from England, so many of the wedding guests were flying in from quite a distance. Sounded like it was gonna be quite a bash.

The dinner was excellent, especially the vegetable soup we started off with. DJ was always hovering nearby with some rather nice wine, and it was just an outstanding meal all around. During the course of dinner, David held forth on his opinion of Lariam, the anti-malaria drug most of us were taking. He didn't care for it. He said that some 80% of the medical evacuations they had to do from the camps were due to Lariam side-effects, some of which sounded pretty nasty. He said people just suddenly went wacko or catatonic from the drug, frequently on their third dosage...which, ominously, was coming the following day for us.

After dinner, we retired outside to the campfire and passed around the bottle of Amarula, and this all went a long way to erasing the memories of delayed planes and primitive camps. That night, and all during our stay in Botswana, it wasn't really cold at all at night, and I ended up not needing my heavy thermal underwear at all after Zimbabwe. But in another nice touch, we found hot water bottles tucked up under the sheets of our bed to keep the bed warm.

Really the only downside to safari camps is that you have to get up at a miserably early hour if you want to go on the morning game drive. It seemed like reveille got a half- hour earlier every time we moved to a new camp. Moremi sends a person around to make sure you're up at the appointed hour, and then you stumble, bleary-eyed down to the boma for coffee and a light breakfast, and it's off into the bush to harass the animals as they rouse themselves for the day. But the early rousing isn't just out of spite; the game drives are done in the early morning and late afternoon because even in winter, it can get a tad warm at mid-day and the animals are less active then and harder to find.

The skill and knowledge displayed by the safari guides was really remarkable. In Botswana, in order to get a guide's license, you must complete more than three years of training and apprenticeship, and must be able to identify hundreds of different birds and animals on sight, or by their tracks, droppings, calls, or bones. Several times during the trip, our guides spotted birds or animals by naked eye (and while driving) that we had trouble finding even with binoculars after they'd been pointed out to us.



On this morning, we once again got very close to lions, this time a whole pride, an entire Siegfried & Roy starter kit of lions. But they were all extremely busy catching up on their snoozing and laying around, so they didn't pay us much attention. It was times like this that we were glad that we were confident about the people in our vehicle. It was the five of us, and two or three others whom we had some degree of trust in. David later told us that the guides see an alarming number of people who have apparently been watching too much Steve Irwin or Dr. Dolittle, and are under the impression that they can "commune with the animals" or some such newagey horsehockey. So they actually get out of the jeep and attempt to approach the large, hungry carnivores. The end result is that they endanger everyone onboard, especially the guide who has to jump out and save their silly ass. This is one of several reasons why I would make a poor safari guide; I'd be tempted to let nature take its course in such a situation....you know, one of those "circle of life" things...

The swampy area around Moremi was teeming with animals. We saw elephants, giraffes, all manner of antelope-type critters, exotic birds, hippos, lions, cape buffalo...some of them began to get boring we saw so many. After the 500th impala, you just can't work up the same amount of enthusiasm.


Impala and baboons

But there were still some exciting moments. At one point, we watched as a small herd of elephants crossed the road in back of us. One of them, a cranky bull, glared at us, then charged, and we had to hastily depart down the road. Cal later said the elephant "wasn't serious," it was really more a case of "I want to cross the road now, and one of us has to move. Guess which one?"


The elephant family crosses the road...

But this guy decides he doesn't like our face...

And shoos us away

"And don't come back!"

Kudu

After a few hours, we headed back to camp, where there was a full breakfast waiting for us (and, of course, Charlotte with her towels). I'd been concerned that things could get boring between the morning and evening game drives, but that never seemed to be the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. I ended up wishing we had just a little more free time around camp. You weren't obligated to go on the game drives, of course (and one or two people on the tour did opt out on a few of them), but seeing the animals in the wild was one of the main reasons many of us came to Africa. About the only thing Moremi lacked that I could have wished for would be the option for wandering around outside on foot at your own leisure, but that would be quite dangerous, of course, even if you had a guide with you.

In the afternoon, instead of a drive, we went out on the delta in boats. Small boats, boats small enough to be in trouble if a pod of hippos suddenly decided they didn't like you on their turf. We zipped along through narrow waterways between tall reeds, pampas grass, and papyrus, occasionally emerging into larger open areas. Once, while we were pulled up along the side of a bunch of reeds with a tangle of spider webs in them, Cal pointed out the one and only snake we saw on the entire trip, a western green snake. Even though we were just a few meters away, you really had to look closely to spot the snake, it blended in with its surroundings so well.




A tangle of spider webs in the late afternoon sun



A greensnake in the bush

Later, as we motored down a narrow channel in the reeds, a hippo suddenly exploded up out of the water not 20 meters from our left side, did an astonishingly deft U-turn, and hustled off back the other way, reminding us once again that this wasn't the zoo. Even Cal had failed to spot it until it came up.


Papyrus



A fish eagle flies off in search of sushi




As the Sun rolled down towards the horizon, we left the narrow reed channels and came out into a large open part of the lake, and Cal maneuvered the boat to a nearly-ideal spot for watching a truly spectacular sunset. Because of the number of brush fires in southern Africa, the air near the horizon was frequently very hazy, which makes for some breathtaking sunsets. We had a great spot looking across the water and towards a tree that the Sun was sliding behind. Because of the amount of haze in the air, looking directly at the big red ball was not a problem. It was a perfect African moment.

Dinner that night was once again excellent, and nobody went psycho from the Lariam, which was a relief.

Scenes around Moremi


Oxpicker birds nosh on parasites from the hide of an impala



A cape buffalo, with its own oxpicker onboard



The disadvantage of long legs: a giraffe has to put itself in a very
awkward and defenseless position to get at water or low branches

A yellow-beaked hornbill



African "fast food:" an impala hotfoots it into the bush



A jeep crosses a "small puddle"





Open-bill storks

Another dead tree...

Moremi's "moat monster:" a small croc hangs around just outside
the gates of Moremi

Although I was getting quite used to Moremi, the next day, Tuesday was our last day there, and we were moving on to another camp, Savuti. We did one last game drive with Cal, then drove back to the airstrip, and squeezed back into the teensy planes. After another short hop northeast over the Okavango Delta, we came down at the airstrip outside the Savuti Safari Lodge, located deep inside Chobe National Park.




Flying to Savuti

A bush plane flies across the Okavango

Savuti was a completely different experience. The first thing you notice is the traffic. There are several other safari camps in the vicinity, and even some public camp grounds, so you encounter quite a few other vehicles, particularly when the word spreads via radio of some particularly interesting animal sighting. On the road from the airstrip to the camp, we joined five or six other jeeps vying for a look at some lions by the side of the road, not the last time we'd encounter such a traffic jam. Savuti is in a much drier part of the delta, so there are much larger areas of open, dry land, fewer waterholes, the roads are considerably dustier, and it tends to get a little warmer in the afternoon.

If I hadn't experienced Moremi, I'd probably be going on right now about what a great place Savuti was. The facilities there were considerably swankier, the rooms are permanent buildings and much more luxurious, the food was very good, the staff was professional...but overall, it just lacked the soul of Moremi. Johan and Lianne, the managers, were professional and courteous, but just not as open and social as David and Charlotte had been. The stay at Savuti was like staying at a nice, if slightly sterile hotel, the stay at Moremi was more like visiting a good friend.


Plush in the bush: our room at Savuti

The rooms there are all glass along one side, and most of them overlook a mostly-dry river channel that runs the length of the camp. Elephants were almost always present in the channel, mucking around in the few wet spots remaining, so you could sit out on the deck in front of your room or by the camp's boma or swimming pool and watch them splashing around or shooing off the other animals that sometimes came in and tried to get to the water. An electrified fence along the near bank of the channel kept the elephants out of camp, but they didn't seem to care about our proximity otherwise.


Our watering hole and theirs: elephants congregate by the swimming
pool at Savuti


Some kudu oh-so-nonchalantly sidle up to the waterhole...

and get chased off by a hosing from a piqued elephant.


Edward sets up a well-stocked tea break
Photo by Pam Bloxham

The guide we wound up with this time was Edward, who bore a slight resemblance to Arsinio Hall. On all the game drives at Moremi and Savuiti, there would be coolers with drinks and snacks, and usually a stop somewhere safe where we could get out and have a light snack. At Savuti, they even went so far as to bring along china dishes and glasses.

The bar at Savuti wasn't as well-stocked, and the bartender wasn't as knowledgeable as DJ back at Moremi. Nonetheless, drinks and dinner were quite nice. The next morning, we had been told the wake-up guy would be around at 6, but he never showed up. It was light enough, though, so we walked the short distance to the boma without much worry.

After coffee and fruit, we headed out on the morning game drive. The target that morning was the Savuti marsh, which despite its wet-sounding name, was quite dry. And flat. Flat for as far as you could see, with far fewer trees than the wetlands around Moremi. Much of Botswana is made of large, flat, nearly-featureless stretches of sandy clay called pans. It was clear that somebody had a sense of humor, because on our way to the marsh, we drove over "Peter's Pan."


What the lions call "the buffet line..."
Photo by Pam Bloxham

The marsh was not quite as good for game viewing as other places we'd been. Because it was so flat and open, without many trees, the animals could get further from the roads. Nonetheless, we did get to see some new animals, including a couple of jackals skulking around in the grass looking for eggs, some wildebeest, and a bat-eared fox. And then there were the birds: the colorful lilacbreasted roller (Botswana's national bird), hornbills, the unfortunately-named kori bustard (which is the largest bird that can fly), the omnipresent guinea fowl, and we even finally saw some ostriches. The first few groups we saw were very skittish, and we couldn't get close. But later, we managed to get closer to a small group.


A lilacbreasted roller, Botswana's national bird



One of only four palm trees in the entire Savuti marsh

Run, little piggy! A warthog hightails it (literally) across the road in
front of us, heading for the shelter of the trees. He probably knew
we knew how tasty warthog is...


Towards the southern end of the marsh, we tracked a warthog for awhile. It was heading out across the open for a group of bushes in the distance, and we were paralleling it on the road. It would move away from us, but then the road would close in again on it. Just ahead of us, it made a mad dash across the road and into the bushes.

The birds and the beests...


A guinea fowl



Wildebeest

Ostriches


After the morning snack, Edward heard a call on the radio that a leopard had been spotted back near camp. We made the decision to go after it, and so we went tearing up the road headed back north. Since we were now in a hurry, of course we started seeing more animals, including some giraffes laying right by the road. We made one or two very quick stops, and finally made it to the area where the big cat had been spotted...and which was now a traffic jam of safari jeeps. Just as we pulled up, we saw something dart into the bush, and another guide said that we just missed it. But Edward knew the area, and circled around on a road behind the spot, and we did manage to catch a very fleeting glimpse of the leopard.




A leopard. Honest.


In the afternoon, Edward took us out on a special side trip to the Gubasta Hills and we climbed up a short way along the rocks to see some San (Bushman) rock paintings. Although the paintings are not terribly spectacular, they are exceedingly old, perhaps as old as 40,000 years. At the base of the rocks was a small cave where you could still see the soot stains from ancient San campfires.

The afternoon game drive netted us the usual: elephants, warthogs, impala. Towards the end of the drive, we went down a road that got close to a thicket of acacia trees, and sat for a time with a close-up view of a small herd of giraffes munching at the thorny trees, their favorite food.

As the Sun headed down, we pulled over for afternoon tea by a clearing where another herd of giraffes was making its leisurely way across the field, and Edward pulled out a bottle of Amarula. Giraffes, with Amarula. You were wondering how I was gonna tie that in, hmmm? We sipped our Amarula and watched the sunset, lacking only the drunken elephants...




Thursday was our last day at Savuti, and we did one last game drive, catching a brief view of a mongoose poking his head out of a burrow in an old termite mound. Later, we came upon some lions lying right by the side of the road and got veeerrrryyy close. Too close, for my taste (which right at that moment, I hoped was something the lion wasn't interested in). I was sitting on the outside of the rear seat, and there was nothing between me and the cat but about 3 meters of air. The lion just looked bored.


An African animal jam: when interesting animals are spotted, the
guides put out the call on their radios, leading to a flocking of jeeps.





Nothing between me and the lion but 3 meters of air...
and its inability to recognize spam in a can

We collected our bags and headed back to the airstrip, where we squeezed back into the tiny bush planes, and headed for our last stop, the Mowana Safari Lodge. Savuti was really the end of our bush adventure; Mowana was located in the town of Kasane, and was not a bush camp, but a regular hotel, situated on the bank of the Chobe River. I came to Mowana a changed man. A week ago, a luxury hotel like Mowana would have been my preferred habitat. But now...well, I was missing the bush. We drove from the airport, which was a real airport with a real paved runway, over the real paved roads of Kasane, and checked into the real, sterile rooms of the Lodge. There was a TV and a Gideon Bible in the room. Yup, back to the real world. Blagh.

Now again, this is a matter of contrast. Mowana is a very nice hotel (although we wound up not being terribly impressed with either the food or the service), but in comparison to the bush camps, and especially Moremi, it was just a reminder that the trip was nearly over.

For game drives, we went to the nearby Chobe National Park, which being near Kasane and so many safari lodges, was jammed with safari vehicles. On out first afternoon trip there, a big herd of elephants cavorting around by the Chobe River drew almost as many vehicles. Back to viewing in the water-rich environment of the river, we saw more hippos, crocs, fish eagles, cape buffalo, and meter-long water monitor lizards.



An elephant dust-up: a herd of elephants take a dust bath by the side of the Chobe River

The food at the lodge was OK but not great. Meals were prepaid, but drinks were not, and just a Coke was $2. When you asked for water you got bottled water and were charged, but we eventually discovered you could get tap water for free. The snacks and drinks brought on the game drives were not up to the standards of the bush camps, either, and I couldn't help but notice that the guides failed to check around in the bushes for dangerous critters before letting us get out of the jeep, as the bush guides had always done.

Around Chobe National Park:



A juvenile baboon plays a risky game of chicken with a monitor lizard:



On Friday, our last full day in Botswana, we did a very early-morning game drive and in the afternoon, went into Kasane for awhile to do a bit of shopping. By this time, we found that we would have a little time to do more shopping in Victoria Falls on our way out of Zimbabwe. A few of us tried to book one of the flights over the falls, but found they were all booked up.


A pride of lions gets the scent of breakfast, and the hunt is on.
These two are fitted with radio-tracking collars

Target in sight...

Concentrating fully on the prey, oblivious to our presence.

CHARGE!

But no luck this time, so it's back to the barn.

That evening, instead of a drive, we boarded a double-decker boat and cruised along the Chobe River. Once in awhile, we'd pull up along the banks for a close look at some animals, and got fairly close to some vervet monkeys, crocs, a flock of bright green birds called bee eaters, cape buffalo, the usual lineup. The sunset was again spectacular, but this time, we didn't have quite as good a background as we'd had at Moremi, we were cruising past a line of condos and private boats on the Namibia side of the river at the time, and it just wasn't as scenic.

Scenes from the Chobe River cruise:


A monitor lizard

A cormorant dries its wings

Hippos

Vervet monkeys

A fish eagle



Cape buffalo

A large crocodile



Bee-eater birds

As close as you want to get to a croc this size



An impala sports a fashionable radio-tracking collar

Remains of the day: the carcass of a kudu, killed four days earlier.

All-natural lawnmowers: a pair of warthogs help trim the grass on the Mowana golf course. They have to get down on their knees to get their heads this low.

A slender mongoose...no, that's not a comment on its diet, it's what they're called. I wonder, are there fat slender mongooses? Or is it mongeese?

A lion's eyes glow in the pre-dawn darkness
Photo by Kathy Lindquist

Fresh leopard tracks...but no leopard



The morning commute on the baboon highway

Saturday morning, we did one last game drive in Chobe, then loaded up in the UTc buses and began the long trek home. By lunchtime, we pulled into Vic Falls, and proceeded directly to the town's casino for lunch (on our own dime this time). The casino was a garish, plastic place, done up in a faux, hyper-real, overblown African style that would be right at home in Las Vegas. After all the food we'd had over the last week, none of us were particularly hungry, so we just had a light snack at a fast-food place.

Then we spent a bit more time shopping. I found a much nicer Zambezi walking stick than the one I already had, so of course I had to buy it, now giving me two fragile, unwieldy sticks to schlep around. But they did eventually make it home unscathed...almost.

And that was that for Africa. Everything was downhill after that. Everything. We got to the Vic Falls airport to catch our flight to Johannesburg, and discovered a huge line of people waiting for just two check-in agents at the South Africa Air desk. But many of us were still frantically repacking our bags to accommodate our last-minute purchases, so it least the wait gave us a little time to try and cram one more wooden hippo into our dirty socks. Because I now had two walking sticks, and (of course) a bottle of Amarula, I tried to be a good citizen and pare down the rest of my carry-on luggage to the absolute minimum. BIG mistake. Since Ron had almost no carry-on, he helped out by carrying one of my walking sticks, and a second bottle of Amarula for Dave & Kathy. But against my better sense, I packed my spare camera body, my 500 mm lens, my brand-new, expensive Domke photo vest, and a lot of other valuable stuff into my checked luggage.

As our group edged closer to the front, they suddenly shut down one of the two check-in stations for no apparent reason whatsoever, and we were all forced to smoosh together into one increasingly-aggravated queue.

But after some time, we finally settled down in the plane for the short hop to Joburg, and just before takeoff, the pilot made some quick, barely-heard announcement about bug spray. Almost immediately, a guy came down the aisle with two cans of insecticide blasting away all over everything. Thanks for the warning.

The landing in Joburg was, I think, maybe the smoothest I've ever experienced. But then they made up for it by making us sit on the runway for awhile. According to the pilot "nobody in Johannesburg knew we were there." Oh good.

Pam and I had learned before we left that we were both scheduled to be in center or window seats for the seventeen hour flight back. Pam wasn't keen on the idea, and I was aghast; there was no way I'd survive 17 hours in a window seat. So, all during the trip, we'd been trying to get our seat assignments changed, and we'd been told in every airport from New York to Vic Falls that we'd have to do it when we checked in for the flight. Apparently, a few others in the tour group were unhappy with their assignments as well, so when we finally made it into the terminal, Jim Huddle went to the SA Air desk and haggled with the people for awhile, and finally wrangled us all good seats...well, better seats, anyway.

Of all the airports we had to wait in, Joburg was maybe the one that we wished we had more waiting time in. There were quite a few shops there selling African goodies, and some of us still had money burning holes in our pockets. But we only had about an hour, and then it was into a 747 for an ugly 17-hour flight.

I was astonished to find that I not only had an aisle seat, but that the center seat next to it was empty. We'd heard the plane was supposed to be full. But they closed up the doors, and we were ready to be off....like that meant anything. We sat there. And sat there. And sat. After a half-hour or so, the pilot announced that "not all the baggage was on board." After an hour, he changed his story to something about paperwork in the galley. Although I didn't know it at the time, the line about missing bags might have been true, and mine was one of the bags that did not leave with us when we finally headed off at just past 9 p.m. But we were finally on our way.

Oh, with a stop at Sal, of course. Once again, we touched down on the little wide spot in the ocean in the middle of the night. It was crowded there this time, another 747 was sitting there getting gassed up. The clock in the terminal had advanced a full minute and was now stuck on 17:24. And when we re-boarded after an hour or so of groggily shuffling around the terminal, new passengers got on, and the plane was full, including the seat next to me. Fortunately, it was occupied by a smallish woman who slept most of the time.

The flight wasn't pretty, and more and more of my brain started shutting down to escape the nasty reality of it. I'm not sure, but I think I might have even slept for an hour or two. But eventually, the Big Pond came to an end and we set down in the chaos of JFK Airport in New York, some 30 hours after getting out of bed in Botswana. The entire airport seemed to be one large construction zone, and I almost expected the airplane to be held up by a flagman while a cement mixer backed up. Getting off the plane, I knew I was back in the good old US of A: the very first sign I saw hanging on the jetway wall was in Chinese, with no English translation.

So then we started waiting for our luggage. The wait wasn't nearly as long this time as last time we were there, only about half an hour this time...for some of us, anyway. As the minutes wore on and fewer and fewer bags dribbled down the chute, my big black bag became more and more conspicuous by its absence. Finally, the belts stopped, and me and a handful of other people were left standing there empty-handed.

South Africa Air has some sort of alliance with Delta, so we were directed to the Delta lost bag office, where they had precisely one guy on duty. It took about another half hour to get to the head of that line and file a report. The guy said there had been a "mis-loading" in Joburg.

When we originally booked our New York to LA return flight, we selected a flight that gave us something like a five-hour layover in NY. None of us were looking forward to spending another several hours rotting in the airport waiting for a flight that would last nearly as long, but we thought it might be good insurance, in case anything went wrong. Good call. Between delays in getting out, delays in transit and delays in the airport, we finally stumbled up to the National Airlines gate only about an hour before departure. And yeah, there was another hour layover in Vegas, where the outside temperature was a balmy 42.7 (109) degrees. Just to complete the experience, I managed to lose my jacket in the terminal.

Overall, the trip was great, and I did have fun...so of course, the great kosmic karma kops decreed that I had to pay dearly for that. Waiting for me when I finally dragged my weary butt home was a notice from my landlord saying they were "terminating my residency 30 days from today." "Today," in this case, being June 20, just a few days after I left. The next morning when the apartment office opened, I went down there to inquire if this was some sort of bad joke or mistake. Nope. They were just booting me out, and they claimed they didn't even have to give a reason. Later, out of the goodness of their hearts, they deigned to grant me an extension until August 11. What I finally figured was that they had raised my rent as much as the law allowed, but figured they could get more money out of a fresh sucker. It was probably illegal as hell, and if I hadn't been an utter wreck at the time, I probably would have fought it.

I spent the next several days fighting the severe timeshift and the fresh shock of the apartment thing. Five days later, I got a call from Delta, saying that my bag had finally made it, and they were sending it around by courier. What they didn't say was that the guy wouldn't come pounding on my door until two in the morning. The bag was a wreck. The lock had been cut off, the zipper broken, and somebody apparently had a considerable amount of time to go through it and pick and choose what they wanted to steal. Can't help but wonder if the guys who operate the x-ray machine have an operation going. Gone was my spare Nikon FM2 camera body, my Soligor 500 mm lens that had worked so well for the eclipse, my newly broken-in Domke photo vest, and assorted other valuable items. Really, about the only item of real value they didn't take was my Bogen tripod and the expensive geared head for it. Guess they couldn't fit it under their coats. I know they had time to go through the bag, because I had a plastic portfolio inside that had a small amount of Zimbabwe and Botswana currency stashed in it that I was saving as a souvenir. They had had time to open the portfolio, go through it, take the cash, and reclose it. As I write this nearly a month later, I'm still going around and around with SA Air about this.

A late update: on October 1, I got a letter from SA Air with a check for the princely sum of $74.20, based, they say, on the estimated weight of the items stolen. Guess I'll have to carry heavier cameras next time...

They end up their cheery little letter by saying they look forward to "fully meeting my expectations" on future flights. Rat bastards. I'll freaking SWIM to Africa before I'll step onto another one of their planes.

But the eclipses are still calling. There's a doozy coming up in China in 2009; a full five minutes of totality near Shanghai. Hmmmm....