Dumela. My name is Faisal Bakhteyar and for summer 2011, I will be interning at True Men Trust, an organization targeting HIV/AIDS issues in Francistown, Botswana. Through this travel blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, experiences, and adventures in the most unadulterated manner.

Friday, 12 August 2011

A Weekend of Incredible Luck and Coincidence

NOTE: There is a lot of natural gore in this post and I recommend that you don’t read it if blood, internal organs, and viciousness make you faint.

After not spotting any lions in Moremi Game Reserve while we were in Maun, Thomas and I decided that we would do ANYTHING to see lions in the wild before we left Botswana. Running low on spending money and not being able to miss any weekday for the sake of workplace professionalism, our best option was to go for a weekend to the 12000 km2 Chobe National Park where we had spotted the 2 females on our first game drive in Botswana in early June. This was one of those things where we knew that even if we planned this trip as meticulously as we could, there was absolutely NO guarantee that we would see anything. And that was the beauty of it all.

The week before our trip to Chobe National Park, I sent out countless emails to tour operators and safari guides and explained to them full well that we weren’t looking for the luxury tourist weekend. All we wanted to do was spend as much time looking for the big cats as we possibly could with zero amenities. The main issue I ran into was that tour operators and personal guides are EXPENSIVE when you want to do your own thing. A lot of them had “set” activities where you would leave at 8AM, go for a boat cruise, have lunch, do a 3-hour game drive, camp, and then return the next day. There was little flexibility in such trips and they did not cater to our needs whatsoever. Of the 17 or so people I contacted, one man’s reply stood out in the sense that he didn’t ask about my budget or anything. He just said he would try and show us the big cats. His name was Godfrey Mbeha and the rest of the week was spent coordinating our weekend with him.

After one hell of a stressful week, Friday’s arrival came as a relief. That first week of fasting for Ramadan was tough and there was just a lot going on at work in terms of recommendations report finalization and tempers were flaring. We quickly grabbed some groceries and headed to the hitchhiking point at 2PM. After about 10 minutes, a big man in a red Mercedes stopped to pick up people. In sticking with the “every man for himself” ideology, we beat the crowd to the car and blocked all doors. No mercy. With no space in the trunk and the AC off, we drove all the way to Kasane (6 hours) with all our bags and sleeping bags on our laps. SO HOT! On the way, we discussed how it would be cool if we came full circle and saw all the wildlife we had seen on our first journey to Kasane. Elephants, Ostrich, Giraffe, Kudu in that order. I don’t know if this is right but the chances of seeing all of those creatures on the highway was low and had they all been encountered, the chance of seeing them in that order is 1/64? Whatever the odds were, it happened and we saw all creatures in quick succession in the correct order. We all just looked at each other in amazement. Mother Nature decided to be kind?

After arriving in Kasane, and having dinner with Chloe and Lyndsay at an Indian restaurant, we headed to their homestay to crash for the night. In the malaria zone, the mosquito nets came out and we slept knowing that the following day was going to be big. A couple of hours later, at 5:30AM, we woke up and got ready for a long day of driving. As a got out of bed, I looked at the bed sheets and there was leopard faces on them that I hadn’t noticed the night before. I made a note of it to Is and we continued our preparation. Foreshadowing? We were at the parking lot where we were to meet Godfrey and sun still hadn’t come up. The peanut butter and bread came out and breakfast was had sitting on an edge in a parking lot. Godfrey pulled up at 6:30AM- exactly when we had planned to meet- in a land cruiser. Having been in the backs of open top safari cars for all of our previous game drives, the sight of the land cruiser was initially disappointing. Our fears were quelled when Godfrey told us that the roof was canvas and we would be allowed to stand with our heads out the window after we dropped our gear at the campsite.

So we got in, put all of our stuff in the back of the car and headed off. Godfrey had a bunch of books on the dashboard including Newman’s Bird Guide. We started driving towards CNP (Chobe National Park) and he talked to us about his background, family, and views on the tourism industry. We’ve had a number of guides in the past, but never have we met someone so unbelievably knowledgeable and passionate about the bush.  A lot of guides talk like they’ve just memorized interesting facts and are just regurgitating them and there is nothing wrong with that. But with Godfrey, when he speaks, you can tell he speaks from experience. He started off in the army’s anti-poaching unit in the early nineties and lived the rough life going after poachers that wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him dead. He said his unit would spend 20 days or more patrolling on foot after being dropped off by helicopters. After leaving in 1996, he became a guide and opened Fun Fun Safaris after returning from the US in 2003. Godfrey or Bush Master as he appropriately calls himself is an expert in the bush. He’s a naturalist, a behavioralist, a tracker, and that makes him an incredible reader of the bush(He’s also very tech-savvy). He told us that after all the emailing and preparation, he thought we were “die-hards” and that coming from a man that spends most of his year in the bush, means a lot. He also said that the night before he had dreamt of lions and that it was a good omen. Was it ever…..

Our plan was to drive to our campsite, drop off our stuff, set up camp, grab a snack, and then head off for another 6 or so hours of driving in search of the big cats. It is required that all driving activity in the park stop at 6:30PM and so that was the time we had to retire back to our campsite. Im now going to start describing our actual trip and I just want you to know that these things don’t happen on every game drive or on most game drives. People go out on 10 or 20 day camping trips and not see one of the things we saw. It may seem “astonishing” to you readers, but just know that for us, it was “unreal” and hard to put into words. Here we go:

So we entered the park and headed down to the Chobe riverfront spotting the usual wildlife on the way. Out on the river plains, Godfrey spotted the Puku. No big deal. It’s the only place they are found with numbers approximating around 150. 10 minutes in, at around 7, and we already had a rare sighting.

We pulled off of the Chobe Riverfront above the banks into a different habitat. Along the way, Godfrey had looked in the sand and seen leopard and jackal tracks and told us to keep an eye out.  At around 7:45, there was an IMMENSE sighting. 3 wild dogs that had just taken down an impala minutes earlier were ripping it apart and swallowing chunks. Wild dogs are one of those complex predators that need more appreciation then they get. After chasing down medium-sized antelope in groups that work with a relay strategy, they disembowel their prey before it even hits the ground and apparently, it happens so fast that its painless. They then proceed to swallow chunks of the prey which are regurgitated upon return to the den for the youngest and elder members of the pack that cannot hunt.  This was our first predatory kill sighting from all our trips and it was exciting and barbaric. The car’s top was still covered and so we were literally hanging out the windows taking pictures of the dogs that were about 70 meters away. They would occasionally look up with their faces all bloodied and then return to viciously tugging at the impala. To explain to you how special this was: they are the most endangered large predators with around 550 wild dogs in Botswana, the pack ranges can sometimes be as large as 600 square kilometers, and they don’t occur permanently in Chobe National Park. Pretty cool huh? It gets wayyy crazier.
Bloody-faced wild dogs
So all the time the wild dogs were tugging at the impala, white-back vultures were accumulating in numbers on the ground and on the trees. Out of nowhere, a huge Lappet-faced vulture landed and all of a sudden, our “incredible wild dogs kill” sighting just got a lot cooler. Lappet-faced vultures are ugly as anything but are so significant to the ecosystem. Their beaks are much stronger than other vultures’ and thus they can rip through carrion skin and eat tough parts that most others can’t. Another rare sighting (it was even tagged). 
Lappet-faced vulture
White-backed vultures swooping in
Then, the dogs just sort of scurried away and the vultures swooped in to the sight of the kill. It was short lived as in the distance, Godfrey pointed to a moving object. It was really well camouflaged and when I switched from looking through my viewfinder and using the naked-eye, it was hard to locate. But as it got closer, it became obvious that it was a massive leopard casually walking up to the kill. It grabbed the kill, and making use of its massive neck muscles, carried it away into the distance. This wasn’t without drama as it was pursued by two black-backed jackals. With the leopard out of sight, we drove away perplexed as to how all this had happened in the first hour of our day. Godfrey explained to us that this is how nature works. The wild dogs ate half of the impala, vultures had a bit, and then the leopard had his part.
Large leopard dragging the kill away probably to hide it in a tree
Less then 20 minutes after leaving the leopard, at 8:30, there was another big sighting. We were about 200 meters from the Serondela picnic sight where we were to take a bathroom break when we joined a group of cars watching 2 lion cubs eat a baby elephant. The mother was lounging in the shade and according to Godfrey, she had probably taken down the elephant the night before as it seemed very fresh. It was strange because we had seen so many baby elephants on our trip to the Chobe National Park and its probable that this was one of them. But its life was giving way to more life and that’s just how it is. The were cute but savage at the same time. Hard to describe. Less than two hours in and we had seen everything we had come to see. We returned to the same sight throughout the day to see if anything new would happen but the same lion cubs and lioness kept their ground and guarded their kill. When we first saw the kill, you could tell it was an elephant and not a lot of it was missing. Later, we saw one of the cubs tugging at the elephant’s trunk, and on another occasion, all three playing tug-of-war with its guts. Absolutely brutal. When we returned the morning after, there was not much of the elephant left. The lions seemed nice and fat though. Godfrey’s dream had come true.
lioness and two cubs playing with their food
An hour and a half later, at around 10, after watching a herd of elephants and bull buffalos, we wandered down to the river where Godfrey spotted lion spoor in the sand. Earlier he had said that to be a good guide, you had to follow the tracks and work hard, and he was so right. Throughout the day he had stopped and looked at the sand to look for tracks and whenever he had, we had seen something. We drove down to the riverfront and there we saw about 7 lions of all ages (including a young male) lounging in the bush. As we watched, they were joined by 2 more, and then everyone got up and moved away. Having caught our glimpse, we headed for our campsite.
large cape-buffalo
BOGA 5, the private campsite reserved for local guides registered with the Botswana Guiding Association, was nothing more than a placard labeled BOGA 5. There was thick sand all around as well as a troop of baboons. No water, no fence, no nothing. Absolute wilderness. The only thing that made it a campsite was the sign that said BOGA 5. That is it. No one else except baboons around for at least a kilometer in any direction. Godfrey designed us a bush toilet which was nothing more than a hole dug in sand. He said where most places have long drop toilets, we had a short drop.
hiding under the mama
Baby loving the mud. Elephants lather themselves with mud to protect their skin and absorb minerals
 We headed out again at 12PM and spent most of the afternoon watching the grazers cross the water by which we also saw an incredible variety of birdlife. Occasionally, we returned to the baby elephant and take a look at the lions though because of the rush of cars, we never stuck around for long. Godfrey said that it wasn’t good that people crowded around the kill because it made it unnatural when the animals were so aware of people that they would look up. He said it was best to stick around for a couple of minutes and then drive on and let the animals do their business and because of that mentality, I have so much respect for the Bush Master. We also returned to the sight where we had seen the pride of lions down by the water. They were quite the lazy bunch sleeping in the bush but Godfrey noted that they looked skinny. We just didn’t think of it much up until around 4:45PM.

Throughout the day, we’d get amazing facts and information from Godfrey about everything in the bush. Everything from the significance of termite mounds, to the tufts on the giraffe’s horns, to the black hairs on the impala’s legs, to the stomach acids of crocodiles, to the communication technique amongst acacia trees to avoid getting eaten by giraffes and much more. We got the etymology of the latin names of species and learnt things that most books probably wouldn’t publish. 

At 4:45 PM,  we wandered down to where we had spotted the 9 lions, parked our car, jumped on top of the car and just relaxed. Godfrey said that they would have to come down to the water to drink at some point and so we would wait and see what they would do. We would “think like the lions”. He had this whole tactic where he parked the vehicle a little bit further down then where he thought they would come out and he watched the area through his side mirror. On one side were open plains with a large herd of impala and on the other was dense bush. We were straddling the boundary and had a clear view of both. Other cars would stop by us and guides would ask Godfrey why we were so happy even though we were watching impala. Man, after our morning, we were eternally happy.

At around 5:30, Godfrey’s predictions came true and it was just weird how accurate they were. The same pride of lions roamed in behind us and lurked in the shadows of the bush. Godfrey said he had seen a number of kills in the same area and with the animals looking skinny, something would happen. All the lions, from the cubs to the young male, were yawning continuously and that usually means a change in energy levels in creatures as in when a lion is going to sleep, when it is getting up, or when it is about to hunt.
part of the family

"Golden-Eyes". Just looking at this scares me a little
One of the lionesses got up and walked through the bush making sure not to come out in the open. Another followed. Godfrey was familiar with this pride as he picked out the “Old Mama” who was blind in one eye as the result of multiple anthrax attacks. All of a sudden, the impala’s sounded an alarm and ran onto the plains. Old Mama and the young male (he didn’t have a full mane but was by far the largest) got up and crept forward with their eyes focused on the impala herd. When you see all their ripped muscles, golden-eyes focused on a target, moving surreptitiously through the bush, it instills this instinctive fear in you. The golden eyes themselves were enough to bring fear. The lions, with the herd still far away and aware of the danger, just lay down as flat as they could. 

Young male yawning
Then out of nowhere, a one-horned male impala, quite possibly the dominant male, bounded from the herd and bee-lined for our car. He then turned towards the bush and just as he was reacting to the sight of the 2 waiting lions, they jumped him with such ferocity that we were all just left trembling. Like this instinctive fear that I cannot describe. I think I might have let out a whimper. There was a plume of dust and all of a sudden, all 9 lions were digging into this poor Impala. Its legs were up in the air but it made no sound. There was no room for sound. All we heard was vicious growls and roaring from the lions as they literally ripped this Impala apart. Man I tell you, its one thing to watch it in a documentary, but it’s a whole new level when everything happens meters in front of you. We all thought it was a dumb impala but Godfrey attributed everything to the hunting tactics of the lions. In 30 minutes, with their faces all bloodied, the scene quieted down and there was very little left of the Impala.
The poor one-horned impala just before he got owned. 3 seconds later he was in the jaws of a beast

5 minutes later, same impala

You gotta know your place in the pride
Impalas however are more of a snack than a proper meal. So, a lioness wandered down the water, had a drink and then proceeded to watch as a massive herd of buffalo crossed from the bush onto the plains. The majority of the hundreds strong herd had crossed which left the back 50 for the lion’s eyes. The weakest of the herd are kept at the back and you could see the lioness sizing up the calves and the elderly. But, the sun had gone down and the time came for us to return to our campsite, which was probably 2 km from where we had been watching the lions.
Buffalo crossing onto the plains

Sizing up her next meal
We returned to our campsite buzzing with our newfound luck. Godfrey has been guiding for a number of years and had said he had never had a day like this one. He said we should all buy lottery tickets upon our return to Canada. Though im sure we got lucky on a number of occasions, there is no way we would have seen half the things we would have seen, especially not the lion hunt, had Godfrey not been our guide. It was his skill, his own luck and intuition, and some of ours, that made for what had been the most spectacular game drive day EVER.
Roosting white-backed vultures
We spent our night sitting around the campfire listening to Godfrey’s stories and admiring his passion for nature. He is one hell of a person and definitely an inspiration. Not to mention well-known. Coincidentally, he is related to Chloe and Lyndsay’s host mom, is friends with their boss at work, and also knows my hosts from when they lived in Kasane. We talked about the energies of nature and how animals could sense things much better than we could and it was so nice to talk to someone who was genuinely in love with the Bush and not guiding for the money. Godfrey said guiding was his dream and that his job was his dream and it was just great to see that he was living his dream.

At one point, a honey badger, considered to be the most fearless creature on the planet, decided to roam by our campsite and give us a look. Occasionally there would be the sounds of hyena and zebra not far from our campsite but Im sure they saw us as more of a threat. Especially when we were singing. We retired to bed at around 11 after being briefed on animal safety. Godfrey said that if there was something close to our tent, it was probably a honey badger. If it was loud sounds, it was most likely elephants and they were aware of our presence. We were told to always look out before leaving the tent and not to wander past the “toilet” because then we were fair game for all the predators including the “golden-eyes”. With all that said and done, we crawled into our sleeping bags exhausted by the awesomeness of the day. Our plan was to leave our sight by 6AM so that maybe we could see hyenas on the baby elephant.

I woke up sometime early in the morning to the sounds of rustling leaves and twigs breaking under some immense weight. I’m usually the deepest sleeper and so me being woken by animal sounds meant that they were loud. Chloe described it as a thunderstorm. There happened to be a herd of elephants just roaming through our campsite. They were so close that I actually heard one fart. It sounds like a deep bubbling sound. We then heard more rustling but it turned out it was just Godfrey getting up from bed. I was then notified by Thomas that the honey badger had returned to the campsite sometime in the night.

With only 3 hours before we had to leave the park, we quickly set out to look for the lions down by the riverfront only to find a huge obstacle in our path. A young elephant was sleeping with his/her legs sprawled across the our path. Its funny that when elephants sleep, they look so much like humans. They lie down fully on their side, curl their front legs up to their chest like we curl our arms, and open their mouths to breath easy. This being had no care in the world that we were waiting for him/her to wake up. The elephant would just breath deeply and close its eyes. After about 15 minutes, Godfrey tried to inch closer and it just leapt up all confused as if we had snapped it out of a deep dream.

The big pride of lions was no where to be found so we went to the baby elephant where the lion cubs were still eating away though there was so much meat gone that had we not seen it a day earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to call it an elephant. Its crazy how much the lions ate in 24 hours. With the crowd building again with the influx of “daytrip” tourists, we headed on our way. As we were driving towards the exit, all the guides stopped Godfrey and told him that there was a leopard in some certain area. What I really liked about Godfrey was that he was never in a rush. If things happened, they happened. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

We arrived at the leopard but only saw a ton of cars almost surrounding dense patch of bush where the leopard apparently was. I felt a little bad because there were just so many cars (probably 8) and we were as much of the problem as anyone else there. But Godfrey pulled up to a spot further away from the tree and said that the leopard would cross in front of us. We didn’t even know it was there because of its camouflage coat until we saw a fresh piece of impala fall out of the tree. Then, it descended from the tree not more than 10 meters in front of us and disappeared in the bush after turning to give us a look. After a couple of minutes, it reemerged followed by a cub and crossed our car JUST like Godfrey had said it would. It proceed to pose as it called for its cub to follow him. It was a sound that I wouldn’t associate with a leopard. Very coarse and un-cat-like.  And then they both just disappeared into the distance. What a way for Chobe National Park to say goodbye to us on our very last game drive in Botswana.
posing for the camera

and again

mama and her cub
By 9 we were out of the park, and by 7PM we were back in the Ghetto. All in all, this has easily been the luckiest weekend of my life. It was just strange how lucky we got. People actually go looking for leopards and not see them on 10 day excursions. We saw 3 leopards, 3 wild dogs, and 13 lions on 4 different kills in 24 hours. Not to mention Roan antelope, Puku, Lappet-faced vultures, giraffes play-fighting, baby elephants playing in the mud, elephants sleeping, and the unreal scenery.  National Geographic should hire us Id say. They take weeks to film their scenes. We can do it in a day with our luck. A big thank you to Godfrey Mbeha for taking us on this trip, sharing his knowledge about the bush with us, and making sure we achieved and surpassed our goal. The Bush Family forever. Ma-Naga. (Godfrey if your reading this, I was being very serious when I asked you if you’d mentor me when I came back for my guiding license. See you soon Bush Master). 
Ma Naga

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Weekend in Gabs

For the weekend of July 29th-July 31st, Thomas and I headed to the capital city of Gaborone while Is joined the Kasane girls for a trip to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. Along with our usual motives of just exploring a new location, there was some QPID business to attend to in the form of project identification with development organizations.

Our journey started off on the wrong foot. After finishing up work at 1PM, we headed to Thomas’ house to get the car. With a 6-hour drive ahead of us, we were in a rush and didn’t have time for impediments. Driving at night is quite hazardous with single-lane highways and all the animals roaming this country. Time and time again I’ve heard of deadly accidents on the roads here. Just a couple of weeks ago, my host sister was heading back to Gabs when her car was involved in an accident because a giraffe that was being chased by hunters had come in front of the car. So, Thomas went to start the car and nothing happened. We had returned the car to Mots on an empty tank and initially thought that was not enough gas in the tank. With no choice but to go fetch fuel from the closest gas station, we grabbed our bags and set out on foot, obviously stressed from the fact that time was of the essence. As we were walking by a house, a man said hello and asked us where we were heading. We told him that we were going to go get petrol from the gas station and he said he’d take us after he moved all his boxes from his car to his home. Joyful at this stranger’s kindness, we helped him move the boxes to his house. Before Thomas picked up a box, he turned to me and said “man this guy is an angel”. He then grabbed a box, looked down at it, and then looked at me with a look of shock, surprise, and bewilderment. The box was labeled “Angel Cosmetics” with the “angel” a lot more prominent than the “cosmetics”. We broke out in smiles from the coincidence and strangeness of the entire situation and continued with our task. The man took us to the nearest gas station (which would have been an easy hour walk) and dropped us off to the house. We were resourceful enough to cut a bottle to use as a funnel and funneled the fuel into the tank. The car, however, still wouldn’t turn on and so we popped the hood and proceeded to play around with the battery and after about 20 mins, we had ignition. All along, the battery cable had been loose and just required some shaking to engage. Finally, at 3PM, we were off.

To cover the cost of the car, Thomas and I decided to fill our backseats with fare paying hitchhikers. Yes. Gasp! We picked up hitchhikers. I’ve said this before but hitchhiking is part of life here and without it, you can’t get around. So many times we’ve depended on people letting us into their cars and it was only appropriate for us to allow hitchhikers into ours. Its not sketchy here like it is North America or anywhere else in the world. Last time we hosted hitchhikers on our way back from Tuli Block, we all assigned each other personalities, which we kept throughout the drive. I was Raj, the Indian cardiologist working with Doctors Without Borders. Thomas was Esteban the South African chicken farmer whose accent was the way it was because he had studied and worked in the UK and Australia. And then there was Is, or Floral Sunshine. Floral was a hippie in love with the Earth and didn’t get along very well with Raj the cardiologist. This time around, we decided to be ourselves with the hitchhikers for the sake of keeping our sanity. The drive was grueling and stressful, especially for our awesome driver Thomas, but he was awesome and we arrived in Gabs at around 10PM.

Though F/town is considered the Ghetto, we were 10 times more scared driving through Gabs than we have ever been in F/town. I had seen on the news the day earlier that thieves would hide in bushes behind bus stops and do their deeds on unsuspecting citizens. Mots had told Thomas not to stop at red lights because thieves could come out of nowhere. Basically, we were on edge. Gabs itself is a very spread out city and so after 20 minutes of driving, we retired to our accommodation. We stopped at the Mokolodi Backpackers but the only space they had was for $80 a night. In an effort to conserve our money and be adventurous, we decided to sleep in the car. We found a dark empty plot of land that was walled off and pulled deep in and turned off the lights. Our dinner consisted of short-bread cookies and milo for me and chips ahoy and milk for Thomas. With the wall on one side, dense bush on the other, and absolutely no lights, it was nervy. We both slept very uneasy, frequently waking up to look around.

At 6AM, before the sun came up, we decided to leave and find breakfast so that we wouldn’t be spotted being all sketchy. We found it at the Southern African equivalent of McDonalds called Wimpy. We then rushed to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve for a meeting with the Education Director and 2 cheetahs. Mokolodi Nature Reserve is a private educational reserve located just out of Gabs focused on enlightening the youth and rehabilitating injured or ill wildlife. It currently is part of the Rhino Breeding Program with 7 White Rhinos and also houses offices for the Tusk Trust, and Cheetah Conservation Botswana. We first drove for about 40 minutes through the reserve sitting next to the CEO of the Botswana Telecom Company who was also visiting the cheetahs. The enclosure was fenced off from the rest of the reserve and we past 2 gates before we saw feathers littering the ground and the cheetahs just getting some sun. Apparently there was a brief safety lesson in which the guides warned that we weren’t supposed to make yourself look small in front of the cheetahs, not to kneel or sit next to them, and not to pet them anywhere but the head. I heard none of that. Thomas and I jumped out of the truck and rushed to one of the Cheetahs and stood in absolute awe.
Read this
Photo credit: Thomas Parente
Duma was the first to get his head rubbed and I was obviously the first to jump on the opportunity. His fur was a lot softer than I thought it would be and he was basically a mega house cat. Sitting in the sun, getting his head scratched, purring like mad. One thing about the purr is that it sounds like a motorcycle. His entire throat was visibly vibrating and just being next to such a beast was just weird. You could tell that he enjoyed the company. As the rest of the group admired Duma, Thomas and I wandered over to Letoatse and sat with him for some time. His coat was much lighter than Duma but he was just as big. As the group of 7 others came to Letoatse, we went back to Duma and rubbed his head a little more. The guides told us that he was getting impatient which was total bs because after we took 2 steps back, Duma got up, stretched, and walked right to us and sat down again. After 15 or so minutes, it was time to leave.
Duma's tear
We headed back to the reception where we met the Education Director of the Mokolodi Education Center and discussed business. After, Thomas and I snooped around the sanctuary where injured and rehab animals were kept. There was a HUGE Martial Eagle (Africa’s largest raptor) with a broken wing that stood probably 3 feet tall, 2 crippled vultures, a blue heron, and 2 problem vervet monkeys. The monkeys were ACTUALLY problematic creatures. I had just bought a really nice postcard from the curio shop and put it on the wire mesh while I was photographing the restless monkeys. The smaller one ran up to my postcard, grabbed it, pulled it through, and sat on a tree holding my card. He then proceeded to rip it in half, drop one side to the ground, and lick the other. I haven’t found nice postcards since.  What to do.
Cheeky little monkey

Thomas and I then explored the city, which was wayyyy too busy and chaotic for our liking. It only has a population of 300,000 or so but it was too much for us. We secured tent accommodation at the Mokolodi Backpackers and decided that it was best to get rest after getting little rest the night before. The place was so luxurious compared to any other place we had pitched a tent. The tent had 2 mattresses with a lamp and we were handed hot water bottles to keep us warm. The night was spent chitchatting around the fire with 2 lovely ladies from Norwich University studying medicine and a Dutch gentleman just completing a short volunteering trip. Coincidently, the same ladies had been at the Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun while we were there.
Luxury camping

Well rested, we woke up early, and played around with the resident Great Danes. His USB fell out of his pocket onto the ground and it was only appropriate punishment for laughing at my postcard situation the day earlier that his USB was munched upon by a huge pot-bellied pig. Somehow it still works.
Thomas playing with the Great Danes
We said our goodbyes and headed to the 2011 Botswana Consumer Fair at the fairgrounds. Here we met with a number of organizations, and discussed current affairs with the various government departments that were present. In the end, I got a ton of insight into the country in the 5 hours we were there. Best conversations were had with an official from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks responsible for approving game hunting licenses and a representative from the Department of Mining Affairs.

We picked up 3 more hitchhikers and headed back to Francistown hoping to be home before dark. As we took a short break in Palapye, a peer educator from True Men approached us and asked us we had space in our car. Luckily we had 2 spots and so the rest of the ride involved deep discussion about HIV/AIDS with the peer educator and a Zimbabwean bus driver. Again, we learnt a lot more from them than we had when we were doing our own research on the social issues in Botswana associated with HIV/AIDS.

Home Sweet Home. Back in the Ghetto, we waited at the bus rank for Is who was on her way back from Namibia. Heading home, we shared stories and if you want to read more about her experience read here: http://wanderingis.blogspot.com/ . As a short reflection on our weekend in Gabs, we did a ton of cool stuff, but I would never want to be a cooperant doing a project there.

Football in Bots

Football (soccer) is big here. Like really big. More people wear Chelsea, Man U, and Italy jerseys than traditional clothing. The Zebras, Botswana’s National Team, were one of the first teams to qualify the 2012 African Cup of Nations and they are very well respected. Botswana has its own league but the South African league is also very popular, especially the Kaizer Chiefs. The Kaizer Chiefs regularly have advertisements on primetime TV for their Kaizer Chief Funeral Plan. Probably for the die-hard supporters. All I know is that football runs in the blood here.  The Ghetto has a multitude of dirt football fields that are constantly packed with players. The goal posts are made of 3 pieces of straight wood and lack any sort of back netting. Because of the lack of grass in this arid country, whenever there is any sort of movement on the field, a cloud of dust rises from the ground making everything even more dramatic.

True Men has its own football team that competes with other government branches and organizations and when Thomas and I first informed everyone that we wanted to play, we were laughed at. Like actually. The project officers introduced us to all the peer educators on the 3rd day of work and everything was fine. As soon as they mentioned that we were going to play on the team, the whole room of 15 peer educators burst into laughter. It was so demoralizing and motivating at the same time.

The issue was that most games are on weekends when we are off exploring the country. A couple of weeks back though, the game was on a Monday after work and we were determined to play. The game was against another organization dealing with vulnerable children. We had rip off Man U jerseys and they had rip off Inter jerseys. It was my first time in a Man U jersey, and though it was clean, i felt dirty.
(photo credit: Isabelle Jones)
School had just been let out and so there we had quite the crowd not to mention all our co-workers. Without cleats, Thomas and I struggled to stay up in the initial stages of the game. The ground was a mixture of dirt, pebbles, and broken shards of glass. Falling was gambling with life. I was so unbelievably out of shape, and in the arid climate, a water break was necessary after 4 minutes. The other guys were not as good as they made themselves out to be and Thomas and I did the QPID proud. The final score was 5-7 and the loss was unfortunate but we were glad that we had maintained our dignity. Good times in Botswana.
The Team (photo credit: Isabelle Jones)

Weekend in the Ghetto

For the weekend of July 22nd -25th, after a short 3-day work week following the long weekend and midsummer retreat, Team Francistown decided to stay put in the Ghetto and just take it easy for once. It was to be our first weekend in the town we have been residing in for 2 months and it was nice to take a break from all the adventurous travelling and stay put.

Saturday morning was spent doing laundry. Lots and lots of laundry. More on this to follow in a later post. Just know that it is absolutely exhausting. After, Isabelle and I met up with Bettina and Thomas at the happenin’ Galo Mall. This posh mall has a number of good restaurants including Nandos, and Bimbo’s and we decided to treat ourselves with authentic Indian food at Tandurei Restaurant. Our entertainment came in the form of Bettina’s bewilderment at Indian food. “Black people don’t do green” was her comment at the sight of palak paneer (spinach and cheese). She has said this on a number of occasions with reference to the fact that raw vegetables don’t exist in the cuisine here; everything is cooked, spiced, and salted.
Galo Mall
Our appetites satisfied, we walked around and stumbled on a fashion show as well as a rap battle where up-and-coming rappers were ripping each other apart with the crowd helping in being all gangsta and going “OHHHHHHHHHHHH” at hearing a “dope” rhyme. We were told that we had arrived late and that earlier in the day, there had been skateboarding, djing, and dancing competitions sponsored by Sprite. We then just walked around our town, across the railway tracks through the industrial area to the Catholic Church and then to Francistown’s “tall” building that was all 3 stories high. Yes. You read correctly. 3 stories. Believe it or not, that’s the highest elevation I’ve been at since arriving in Botswana 2 months ago. Even two-story structures are unusually out of place. Francistown is completely flat with one dominating hill (Nyangabgwe Hill) that can be seen from miles around.  At sundown, we went to our chill spot at Milky Lane where the variety in ice creams, and beverages mindboggling (this place requires its own post so I will post about it later).
Haskin's Street and Nyangabgwe Hill
Sunday consisted of more laundry and washing our tent, which was getting moldy after it had been lathered with bat guano and other crap at the Okavango Delta. It was a two person effort that took most of the afternoon. By the end of the weekend, I had spent around 8 hours just washing stuff.  

All in all, our Francistown weekend was nice. We are no longer foreigners here and this is our home. People recognize us and say hello not as if we were tourists, but as if we were residents and it’s just an awesome feeling. Though there’s a lot to see in this world, its sometimes nice to just to stay home.

In work related news, Is and I recently interviewed all the True Men staff in order to compile a organizational analysis and structure assessment report that will be submitted to the organization director. It’s a hefty 16-page document that will go a long way in improving the organization. Next project is sorting out some sponsorship stuff at the organization. True Men in the past has had some issues in managing sponsor money and with the prospect of 2 new projects related to safe male circumcision, and alcohol abuse, money management will become key to the success of the organization.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Midsummer Retreat at the Okavango Delta

For the long weekend of July 15th-19th, the QPID Bots team met up for our midsummer retreat at the touristy town of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The purpose of the midsummer retreat was to discuss the successes and shortcomings of the QPID Projects and refocus us for the second half of the project.  This was done through execution of well thought out discussions led by our site-director Thomas and a number of team development exercises. Because of the long weekend, we also had ample time to do touristy things on a “shoestring” budget and just relax. I just also want to add that this post was so delayed in its creation because I’ve found it incredibly difficult to put into words the overwhelming beauty that was witnessed. I know that’s very soft of me, but for real, I’m getting the jitters writing this post. It’s like trying to reflect on one of those days where your left speechless except this was 4 of those days in a row. Ill try my best to describe the sensory experiences of the trip but this post will do no justice to the memories created at the Okavango Delta.

First, here is a little geography lesson on the Okavango Delta. It is the world’s largest inland river delta and what that means is that instead of emptying into the ocean like most rivers, the Cubango (Kovango) River just fans out and forms a massive flood plain in Northwestern Botswana. Considering that 80% of Botswana is covered by the arid Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta forms a one-of-a-kind 18,000 km2 oasis with lush vegetation attracting animals from neighboring countries. Like the animals that make the annual migration, the water itself makes one hell of a journey, which starts in the Angolan highlands where it rains down from December to March. This water then makes its way through Namibia and starts flooding the Northwestern Plains in May and the process continues throughout the winter. At its peak-in July and August- the floodplain covers 3 times more land than in the summer. For you water cycle geeks, the massive surface area to volume ratio means a crazy rate of evaporation and transpiration and about 11 cubic kilometers of water is lost by September.
Just wanted to give a sense of the vastness. Shot by Adrien Bailey (http://roadmedia.co.za/swamp-troop/the-okavango-delta/)
In the winter months (right now), the Okavango Delta holds spectacle to one of the largest congregations of wildlife anywhere on earth with about 260,000 migrant game animals. There are 5 ethnic groups that have historically depended- and still depend- on the swampland of the Okavango Delta. Sadly enough, there are also a number of concessions smack dab in the middle of the floodplains belonging to extremely wealthy landowners that have established luxury lodges catering to the rich of the rich with weekend getaways in the bush costing upwards of $10,000. These places are so remote that the only realistic way of getting to them is by chartered planes that land on private airstrips. Then, there is Chief’s Island, the largest island in the Okavango Delta that was the personal hunting grounds of the Great Chief Moremi. It boasts some of the greatest densities of large predators anywhere on earth and is as wild as it gets. But enough of me trying to describe the Okavango Delta. For those of you who have watched the BBC Planet Earth Series, rewatch the Pole to Pole episode or the Great Plains episode where there is some really incredible footage of the Okavango Delta. For those of you who haven’t, watch them. Here are some links that’ll help you understand this place:

As for our journey, Is and I left Francistown at 7AM on Friday July 15th and reached Maun at 2PM after using what was the most comfortable public transportation yet. The bus, which would have accommodated 27 passengers on any other route and 15 in Canada, only had 22 seats and so unlike in our travels to Kasane, we weren’t squished up against anyone. The entertainment system was also pretty boss in the sense that there was a hanging 24-inch screen supported by a sound system with serious bass. Our country music loving Rastafarian driver had quite the collection of movies and we were able to watch “Crocodile” (well suited for our trip to the Okavango), “Cop Out”, and “Cellular” for the duration of the trip. About 4 or 5 times, while passing through the Makgadikgadi Pans, we had to slow down or come to a complete stop, as there were ostriches on the highway. Everywhere else you have dangerous drivers that are the problem; here we have an 8 foot tall birds that refuse to move. The most exciting  (and unfortunate) part of our journey was seeing about 20 white-backed vultures feeding on a fresh road-kill wildebeest. All along the way, whenever we saw wildlife, Is and I would be the foreign idiots and get all excited while the rest of the passengers wouldn’t even turn to look. It was quite frustrating not being able to share our excitement.

For accommodation for our 4-day trip, our goal was to find something cheap to fit the QPID budget but still enjoyable and I think we found the perfect place to stay with the Old Bridge Backpackers (http://www.maun-backpackers.com/). Located 10 km out of Maun on an island type land mass with Delta water all around, the place caters to young travellers and backpackers. The only way to get to it is by either an old foot bridge (hence the name “Old Bridge”) across the Thamalakane River or a dirt road that is maybe 3 inches higher than the water on either side. The place itself has a very laid back and relaxed atmosphere with very friendly staff and no formalities. Our tent, pitched under a large fruitful sycamore fig tree, was literally half a meter from a section of the Thamalakane River that used to be a Hippo Pool (my parents will be glad to know that the hippos no longer reside there). Most lodges and companies have some sort of large symbolic animal like an elephant or leopard on their logos but Old Bridge has a bat on theirs. Foreshadowing.
The Hippo Pool and fireplace at the Old Bridge Backpackers
The first night was spent meeting other travellers and discussing our projects.  Entertainment was provided by a retired British army officer with some serious opinions, and a Norwegian traveller using only public transport to get from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to RSA and all the way back. Amanda, the Peace Corps volunteer we had met while in search of the Chief of Bobonong (see earlier post) was also there with about 6 other Peace Corps and WUSC people and so there were a number of young people there. That night, while in the tent, we heard sounds above our tent and things falling on our tent. Too exhausted to really care, we went to bed.
Our camping neighbors' tent. Ours fared a little bit better than theirs.
On Saturday, at 7AM, we woke up to discover that our tent had been covered in bat guano as well as the partially eaten sticky figs that they had been feasting on. For our daily activity, we had planned a mokoro daytrip to the Okavango Delta, something that any traveller to the area must do to experience the Delta. A mokoro or makoro (pl. mekoro) is a traditional wooden dugout canoe used by the local people to travel through the shallow floodplains. It is the only viable method of transportation as it sits probably 2 or 3 inches below the water level, and has no carbon footprint. Other motorboats are used but only in the main waterways but these don’t penetrate very deep and so mokoros are necessary. Propulsion comes from manually pushing the mokoro ahead with a very long pole. The sycamore fig, sausage, or ebony trees used for mekoro take about 100 years to mature and so most people these days use fiberglass mekoro for the sake of sustainability. After about 45 minutes on a motorboat travelling up the Thamalakane River to the Okavango River and floodplain, we arrived at the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust base in Boro village in the NG32 concession. With 2 in each mokoro, we headed out as a convoy of 4 into the Okavango Delta.
One of the main waterways

Sow, our guide and poler, was probably the most knowledgeable of them all and had been doing this for 18 years. The mokoro itself is not very stable and we were required to sit for the whole time while our guide stood behind us propelling us through the reeds while smoking and drinking a coke (he was talented). We rode past a hut where there was some meat being smoked. Sow told us that a foreigner had come and hunted and elephant and these guys were smoking the elephant meat for consumption. Half of the elephant was left on the land for the animals to eat. Sow made it clear to us that people still come from abroad and hunt for trophies here in Botswana and he didn’t agree with the practice at all.
All that stringy stuff is elephant meat.
After about half an hour, we had pulled away from the main waterway and there was absolutely no man-made sound. It was bliss. It took a while to realize it but, in utter awe, none of us made a sound and neither did the guides, knowing full well that we were immersed in the serenity of it all. The poles entered the water with such grace and technique that there was no splash that would have snapped us out of our dream-state. Occasionally we would find ourselves surrounded by thick reed carving our way through what seemed like unchartered territory. There was no sound of snapping twigs or the destruction of reeds, only the gentle buzz of friction as they were brushed aside by the mokoro. Above us was the consistency of a cloudless sky. Below us was a tempting underwater world of spiraling water lily roots and fresh water flora, protected from us by the crystal glass that was water, and our fear of everything wild. We would hear the flight of frogs into the water as they perceived danger but we never saw them. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, a flock of white-faced ducks would take flight from a distant patch of reeds only to settle in our undetermined path where they would be disturbed again. I was at complete peace.
Enough said about the peacefulness

We cautiously approached a “hippo pool” where hippos were known to reside. Hippos are Africa’s most dangerous animals and are responsible for more human deaths than lions or elephants. They look fat, and lethargic, but are incredibly fast on land and, with their voluptuous bodies and unstoppable momentum, can own anything that ventures too close into their water territories. We had already received hippo land safety training when we were in Kasane standing on the banks of the Chobe, but here, we were surrounded by shallow water that a hippo could have easily plowed through.  As we approached an opening in the reeds, we heard what sounded like a whale surfacing for air. It was obviously a hippo and the guides backed us out as fast as they could. We then got our hippo water safety training, which was even more terrifying. Basically, there have been incidents where hippos have tipped mekoro over and proceeded to kill people. We were advised to stay in our Mokoro and not jump into the water and were we to be knocked into the water, to swim as far away underwater before surfacing. We approached with caution and in the distance, saw 4 hippos visibly alert of our presence. We admired them while they were above the water but as they went under, uneasiness prevailed. One hippo went under, and surfaced maybe 15 feet from us and this is where the guides got really alert. The beast was looking straight at us obviously acknowledging our presence. Thomas’ guide joked about going closer but our site-director was about to have a cow and so we stayed put. We backed up about 20 meters to the closest land mass and proceeded to have lunch still with the surfacing hippos in sight.
15 feet away watching us intently
After lunch, we all took turns trying to pole a mokoro just by the hippo pool and it was prettyyyy difficult. Imagine standing on a flat bottom canoe using a large pole to maneuver yourself. Turning was especially difficult.  After, we tracked a herd of zebras while they were grazing in the shallow waters. I made the mistake of stepping on Isabelle’s seat as I was getting out of the mokoro that made a loud crackle that scared away the herd. We then proceeded to track them on land and that’s where we got more safety lessons in dealing with lions, buffalo, elephants, and leopards. Sow was a pretty awesome tracker and after about 20 minutes, we found the herd in some bush intently watching our every move. After all our game drives and safaris, I would say that they were more interested in us than we were in them but it was a completely different experience being on foot in the wild bush.
Zebras in the distance
Me being a poler. Photo credit: Isabelle Jones (cooperant partner)

Our mokoro daytrip ended with Thomas trying to flip me while I was practicing my poling back at NG32, and a very enjoyable motorboat trip from Boro village back to the lodge where we had left in the morning. We had covered roughly 5 km in a mokoro and had seen only the smallest bit of the 18,000 km2 Okavango Delta but had be left wordless. Saturday night consisted of a lot of socializing with travellers and sitting around the fire with professional guides and discussing their awesome lives. I decided to sleep outside near the fire and after about 3 hours of sleep, woke up at 5:30 AM to prepare for our daytrip to the legendary Moremi Game Reserve.

On an absolutely freezing morning, at 6AM, in the back of an wall-less safari car, we made our way along the 142km route to Moremi Game Reserve. Imagine sitting on top of a car in 3 degrees Celsius weather going 80km on a dirt road. It was excruciatingly painful on the face and extremities and by the end, I was told by the others that I looked like an old cross-dresser with my wind-burned lips and dirt coated skin….. The reserve itself is partly located in the Okavango Delta (about 20% of it), used to belong to Chief Moremi, and is host to some spectacular wildlife. It has been the setting many wildlife documentaries and hosts about 30% of the world remaining wild dogs.
A very confident Red-billed Hornbill inquisitive of our breakfast
The start up, as we drove through endless bush, was slow to say the least but then it picked up and we saw the usual safari game. The elephants were smaller in comparison to the specimens in Kasane and our guide Rex attributed it to the fact that the habitat here was much easier to plow through then the dense bush of Chobe National Park and hence the difference in size. Around midday, we ended up helping a vehicle that had gotten stuck in deep sand for about an hour. It’s an unspoken rule that if another safari goer needs your help, you help them or else when you’re stuck, karma will bite you in the ass. The karma rule worked well for us because after lunch, we spotted a pair of caracals, side-striped jackals, and endangered Wattled Cranes. The monogamous cranes were a highlight seeing as there are only 8,000 of them left in the wild. Facts for the day are that they pair for life, mate once every four years, and are the second largest crane species after the sarcus crane. The rest of the day was spent traversing the reserve in search of lions and leopards but none were to be found.
Male zebra trying to show his dominance
Semi-aquatic red lechwe
A pair of Wattled Cranes
At about 6PM, when the sun had already set and our eyes were painfully dry, out of nowhere came a single African Wild Dog. Let me just put into perspective how epic this sighting was. There are about 100,000 leopards and 20,000 lions in the wild and on our 4 game excursions, we have caught only 1 glimpse of a lion. There are only 5,000 African Wild Dogs left in the wild with the average pack range of 600 km2 and one just so happened to be crossing our path just as we were leaving the unfenced reserve. In the low-light, a good picture was impossible, especially since the agile canine kept leaping up in the air in search of another dog that we didn’t see. Here is another fun statistic for you today: Most large predators like lions, leopards, and cheetahs, have a hunt success rate of about 20-30%. African Wild Dogs succeed in a hunt 80% of the time. In the end, we were all left speechless. But that’s just how Mother Africa is. Like Is said: you go out in search of some creature but will only see it once you stop looking. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see an African Wild Dog. My midsummer retreat was more than complete.
The fleeting glimpse of an African Wild Dog jumping in search of others
Sunday was spent sleeping in until 10AM, the latest anyone of us has slept in since being in Botswana. After a relaxing morning that the team spent reading by the river banks, I acquired 2 fishing rods and we set off to the old foot bridge to do some fishing. Thomas and I ditched the girls and went for a basket-weaving workshop. Funny how the girls stayed back and went fishing while the guys went for a basket-weaving workshop. Behind a small shop surrounded by housing, we sat with an incredible lady by the name of Thitaku Kushonya. Under the shadow of the shop, she mentored us on the art of basket weaving and told us about her life. Turns out, she is not just some ordinary basket weaver who had set up a business to get some income from the tourism industry. The lady sitting next to me, guiding my every move, was THE Thitaku Kushonya: MASTER Basket Weaver of Botswana. She is the NUMBER ONE basket weaver in all of Botswana and her baskets have taken her across the globe from the 1994 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia to Toronto, to Disney World. We, average joe cheap student travellers, we getting lessons from the lady that established the basket weaving industry in Botswana. On an annual basis, Mma Kushonya weaves 25 baskets for sale and 6 baskets that she enters into competitions. She showed us one competition basket she had recently finished and it was a piece of art like no other. Hidden in her office desk, out of the sites of the public, she made it clear that this basket was going nowhere but to the competition and rightly so. The afternoon turned out to be a personal and very enjoyable experience and I’m incredibly thankful to Thitaku Kushonya for her dedicating her time to what she believes in and giving us her time and support.
Mma Kushonya's competition basket. Enlarge for detail
Mma Kushonya and the boys in her cooperative shop
Upon our return to the campsite, we discovered that the girls had successfully caught, descaled, gutted, and cooked 2 decently sized fish. The girls were covered in scales but the meal was impressive to say the least. That night was spent finishing up our discussions on the project and what needs to change for the second half of our placement here in Botswana. The night brought to close what for me was the most enjoyable and memorable adventure on this trip. Okavango Delta, I will be back. Inshallah.