Monday, August 7, 2017

Stargazing under the Southern Skies

Cape Buffalo
On a dark night in Botswana you can see the Milk Way, a blurry band of millions of stars cast across the night sky. One of my favorite activities while visiting Botswana is to accompany Paul when he’s invited to a lodge to give a star show to clients. We are typically an “add on” for “special clients” and we have met some really interesting people along with way. This allows me an opportunity to interlope in a world I’m not really a part of (the “one percent” for lack of a better term). 

Relaxing on the porch at Gomoti Plains
We often stay at places we could never afford to stay. While we eat and drink with the clients on the night of the show, the rest of the time we are “insider-outsiders” waking up when we want to (typically long after the real guests have gone for their early morning game drives) and setting our own rhythm to our day often different from the other guests. As “insider-outsiders” we often drive ourselves in to camp, as opposed to flying, and typically park at the back of camp where the inner workings of a camp, that guests never see, take place.  As a sociologist, it’s fascinating. Who are these people who run these camps? What are their lives like? Do they enjoy the three months on, one month off schedule that is typical safari lodges? What types of relationships are formed by these people who work so closely together for such an extended period of time? What’s the craziest thing they’ve ever found in a guest tent?

Our tent at Gomoti Plains
A view from inside
My favorite times in camp are the “in between” when there are few guests around, between breakfast and lunch (when they are out on their morning game drive) and between high tea and dinner (when they are out for their late afternoon game drive). In these moments, “front stage” (what is consciously and formally performed for guests) becomes “back stage” (what happens behind the scenes). The camp is a buzz with activities – cleaning rooms, polishing silverware, prepping for the next meal. Lunch set up is transformed to sun-downers set up – wood is gathered and laid out for the fire, chairs are organized in a semi-circle, the bar is set up, the dinner table set, telescope location determined. We sometimes see other camp “guests” who hide when it’s busy like dwarf mongoose. So cute!

Dwarf mongoose
Exploring camp while guests are away

The evening of the star show typically involves Paul setting up his 10” Mead telescope in a location with a good view of the Southern skies. A mix of bushman stories, astronomy and looks through the telescope at objects like Jupiter and Saturn, the jewel box (a birthplace of stars) and the globular cluster Omega Centauri (a graveyard of stars).

Cape Buffalo
We also get to go out and do our own game drives during the day. On our most recent trip to Gomoti Plains we saw amazing wildlife including a huge herd of Cape buffalo (probably well over 500), plenty of giraffe, and wild dogs. We also had a boat trip arranged for us and enjoyed getting out onto the Gomoti River and seeing the amazing bird life (like spoon bills, fish eagle, African darters, etc.) and lots of lechwe (antelopes with powerful back haunches that allows them to push through the grassy wetlands) and elephants coming to drink and graze.

Many many buffalo


Three wild dogs

I especially enjoyed the awkward water landing of the African darter. Darters, also known as snake birds because when they are swimming you can only see their long neck and it looks like a snake going through the water very gracefully. Flocks of darters occupied the few riverside trees. A white (poop) coating reveals the regular nature of their visits. As the boat approaches they all take flight with some attempting to land on the water, wings flailing in all directions until they finally gave up and just dive themselves under the water. It was quite comical.

Many darters in a tree

African Darters in a tree

African Darter coming in for a landing
While cruising along the river I sometimes just closed my eyes and felt the sun on my skin and listened to the sound of whistling ducks as they took flight. At times the differences between my two lives seems hard to fathom, one week I’m staying at a luxury lodge taking an afternoon boat ride on the Gomoti River and two weeks later I’ll be at a two-day faculty retreat in an over air-conditioned conference room for hours on end. No matter the location, I try to be where I am but I must admit I do find it a bit more palatable to be floating down a river listening to ducks.


Lechwe on the move
Lechwe and a Sacred Ibis

Ellies on the Gomoti River

Spoon-bill Stork

Africa Fish Eagle

Africa Fish Eagle

Yellow-bill Stork

Sunset before the star show

Friday, August 4, 2017

Makes me want to take a head!

Ostrich babies (in between Mom's legs)
On our recent trip to Zimbabwe we were listening to a variety of podcasts including one about “liget” (I think it was on Invisibilia). These two anthropologists had gone to the Philippines to study a head hunting tribe and in the process had uncovered a new emotion called “liget” (if you’re interested I found this link to an NPR story). While difficult to describe this emotion and the varying conditions under which the locals experienced it, there was one point in the podcast when in a “liget” induced fervor the tribe started chanting, “Makes us want to take a head!” This has turned out to be a useful phrase that I’ve muttered often in the final throes of the sale of Paul’s business.

As many of you know Paul has been in the process of selling his business (Ngami Data Services) and office block with several rental units for the last year. It has been a tumultuous and difficult time that has tried my patience and made me question my decision to live in this challenging country with first world bureaucratic expectations and third world infrastructure. This all started a bit over a year ago when a buyer approached us about buying Paul's building. After several conversations we were minutes away from closing the deal when Paul’s decade long business partner came to us to say he had gotten the money to buy the building and business (literally it was the morning of the day we were supposed to meet the other buyers at lunch to “shake on it”). Needless to say, we shifted gears and started the negotiations that were only finalized yesterday.

I returned to the States last August to start my fall semester and hoped that it would all be done by the time I returned for Christmas break. No such luck. When I left Botswana at the end of January to start my study away program in South Africa, I hoped it would be done before I returned to Botswana with the students for the final two weeks in March. No such luck. With ever growing frustration, I return to the States to finish off the semester and had hoped it would be done by the time I returned to Botswana for my summer break by the end of May. No such luck. With the promise it would be done by June 30, I put my metaphorical helmet back on and jumped back into the potentially deadly white water rapids of the final stretch of the sale. Feet up so as not to crash headfirst, I tried to float and prepare myself for the psychological thrashing to come…

When June 30 arrives with still no ink on paper I felt what I now suspect is “liget”, “Makes me want to take a head!” I’m not sure whose head exactly but there were many potential candidates (including my husband’s, as legal contract details and money orientation are not his forte). Or it could be BURS – Botswana Unified Revenue Services (like our IRS) who we spent hours with getting our official tax clearance certificate in June only to be told in July that we had not paid any taxes for the company since 2006, seriously?? Oh wait...just kidding, it’s just a huge computer problem that prevents them from accurately checking their own records!

I wish I could say that I was able to maintain my inner calm through all this but that would be lying. I’ve logged many hours on the treadmill at the local gym to try to prevent the top of my head from blowing off. And yesterday, finally…FINALLY! We signed the 14 page legal document (that I have read far too many times!!!).

So, this weekend I think we’ll celebrate by burning the multiple drafts of the contract we combed through over the last several weeks in our fire pit. We’ll patiently wait for the money to be transferred (because if Botswana breeds anything, it’s patience). We’ll watch the dozen new baby ostriches who visit us for their breakfast every morning. I’ll pat Spike, the dog that’s not my dog, on the head and pack my bags for my return trip to the States on Tuesday and perhaps exhale and hope I never feel “liget” again anytime soon (although I reserve the right to whisper under my breath at the upcoming two-day faculty meeting, “Makes me want to take a head” , if anything really irks me). 

Friday, July 28, 2017

And the magic number is 53…that’s the number of police roadblocks on our trip to Zimbabwe!

We knew we’d face some roadblocks on our trip. It’s part of the reason we didn’t go to Zimbabwe last July. But things seemed to be a bit more stable this year, so we figured we’d give it a try. At least the rioting and protesting in the cities had settled down. I tried to prepare in advance for what we might need at these roadblocks by asking for advice on Facebook. I got lots of advice. Stories of people being fined because their tires were dirty…because they had a bag and water bottle on the back seat of their vehicle. We did everything we could in advance to be ready – red reflector tape on the back bumper, white reflector tape on the front bumper, two reflective triangles (the good ones with reflects on both sides), a reflective vest (to wear in case of breakdowns), up-to-date fire extinguisher, etc. We were as ready as we could be.

While the police seem worried if our lights work, this bus load totally OK!
I decided to keep a count of the stops and, no kidding, we had 53 stops in what amounted to 3 full days of driving (1 ½ day on the drive from the border of Botswana to Mana Pools area and another 1 ½ days back). To be fair the vast majority of the stops were benign with the officers very polite and courteous. We discovered that a good approach was after they introduced themselves (“My name is Constable XXX from XXX”) we would introduce ourselves. Paul, “My name is Paul and I am from Maun, Botswana and this is my lovely wife Kristy who lives in the United States but is here visiting me and we have come to see your lovely country.” These pleasantries seemed to disarm them a bit and often after that they wished us well and sent us on our way. In terms of all the preparations we did, we were asked to see our triangles once, they checked our lights 3 or 4 times and asked to see Paul’s license a few times. Besides that, it was a piece of cake, except for Gweru…

Flower on a Zambezi Teak Tree
Gweru is a city near the center of Zimbabwe. It is the administrative capital of the Midlands Province, one of the ten provinces in Zimbabwe. But besides these Wikipedia based facts, it was the only place we had trouble while traveling. We received a total of three tickets, one on the way in, two on the way out all in Gweru…twice for supposedly going through the same red traffic light! The second time this happened was a bit troubling as the officers took our TIP (“temporary import permit” that allows you to drive your vehicle in a foreign country) and Paul’s license. They insisted that we had committed a very serious offense and would need to stay overnight and go to court the next day and then they took Paul’s license to “make a copy of it”. You must understand that we are in the middle of the street in a busy African city with no copy machine in sight! Paul says, “No, no, no. I’ll go with you” and leaves me in the vehicle. The cop left behind with me immediately says, “Well, if you pay the fine, you will not need to go to court.” The scam is clear. Paul eventually returns after refusing to pay for his own copy (they’ve walked past the police station to a private copying business). We pay our fine and not 10 minutes later are pulled over again for failing to stop at a stop sign. No sense in arguing (although we do a little when I can’t even see the stop sign they are referring to from where they’ve pulled us over). While we’re paying our fine another driver from Botswana gets pulled over and exits his vehicle screaming about how they pulled him over last week at the same spot and he KNOWS he stopped. Scam #2!

We are mildly indigent for a while until I mention that we probably have no right to feel outraged about the (relatively minor, we paid a total of $60 in fines) injustice we have faced when so many people in Zimbabwe have face grave injustices for years. One example of this is a white Zimbabwean man we met who had recently lost the family farm that had been a thriving business and in his family for generations. Due to racial politics, many whites have lost their land and livelihood. Compared to them, we have no right to feel outraged.

Paul, I and our (armed) guide at the top of the mountain
Besides our police escapades we had a nice trip up to the Mana Pools area of Zimbabwe right on the Zambezi River overlooking the mountains of Zambia. Much of our time was spent in the Sapi concession area recently acquired by a local safari company Paul works with in Maun. We met the concession managers in Kariba and followed them in to the area so we could do some mapping. While we originally thought they would get us in and we’d be on our own, they graciously hosted us for almost a week. We climbed a mountain to get an overview of the area following elephant trails up the steep inclines. We joined them on a boat trip (Paul even caught a fish!) to look at the 41 km (~25.5 miles) of river front property they’ve recently acquired where we saw plenty of hippos and crocodiles. And we enjoyed many meals and sundowners with them around their fire in their remote campsite.

Paul caught a fish 
Hippos on an island in the river
Hippos in the river (not so happy to see us)
Cape Buffalo (checkout those horns!)
Large crocodile on the river bank (~7 feet long)
Views from our camp

Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with stunning landscapes and amazing birdlife. Going from the flatness of Botswana to the rolling hills of Zimbabwe is a striking contrast. I spent many mornings with my binoculars and bird book enjoying the view. Huge baobab trees abound! Unfortunately, due to desperation (or greed) many of the animals have been hunted or poached. The area we were in is being converted from a hunting area to a photographic safari area but it may take some years for the animals to calm down. Just about everything we saw ran for their lives the minute they heard our vehicle. After seeing the graveyard of small elephant skulls lining one of the tracks we were on, it is no wonder that the elephants are particularly twitchy and enraged when they hear us coming!

Sunset from camp
Huge Baobab Tree
Road around Baobab tree
Zebra mom and baby
Ellie coated in mud doing a butt rub
A little more to the left...
Small elephant skulls from past hunting
I am hopeful that with time and an end to hunting they will calm down and relax and our two nights in Mana Pools National Park suggests it is possible. Just 20 km (~12.5 miles) away separated by an invisible boundary the animals were very calm. We spent one evening at sundown enjoying watching elephants reach for leaves on high branches and eat sticks with tremendous dexterity. I think they also enjoyed watching us given how close this little one came to our vehicle. (Hope these videos work. Someone let me know if they do!)

Civet (not our picture)
One of the highlights of the trip was our night visits by a pair of civets. I had never seen a civet before and unfortunately didn’t get a picture because they often came late at night to see if there were any interesting leftovers from dinner. The best I can describe them is that they are maybe 2-3 times the size of a raccoon with a similar mask (making them look like night time bandits) and their fur appears to have been designed by a small child – a few spots, some strips, a busy tail, and ears that looks slightly too small for their head. Super cute! I’ve included a picture from the internet so you can see what they look like. 

Chinhoyi Caves
Overall, after 3,210 km (~2,000 miles) of driving we left our Zimbabwe trip grateful for the efforts in Botswana to preserve their wildlife. It made us realize how spoiled we are to have such amazing wildlife in such great abundance here. After a brief stop at Chinhoyi Caves we made our way back to Botswana to see more animals driving on the main road (which goes through the Nxai Pan National Park), with the exception of hippos and crocodiles (which were in such high numbers on the water ways it made me wonder how advisable the canoe trips Mana Pools is famous for are), than we saw on our entire trip to Zimbabwe. If we could give any advice to the police of Zimbabwe we’d recommend not chasing off their tourists by unnecessary roadblocks and scam fines or we’ll be like elephants in former hunting areas and run away as fast as we can!

Kids selling ground nuts