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

1 comment:

  1. I really love this description of the camps in between the high times