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.

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.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Do Something

For this next post, I first want you to reflect on the global news you’ve been watching or hearing about. This could be from the last time you switched from one movie channel to the next and accidently had to pass the news channel, or the last time you skimmed over the online BBC news page just so you didn’t feel like an idiot when others discussed global affairs in everyday conversation (not that that ever happens). Or you could be the type of person who is well versed on current affairs and has an opinion on everything. If you have no idea what is going on in the world, go to some news website-any news website really, biased or unbiased- and find out what’s going on in the world.

The latest headlines that have caught my attention are riots in Greece over austerity measures, a hacking scandal that has engulfed UK media, and generally, governments doing things that their people don’t agree with. In the Middle East and North Africa, we see full out war in Libya (call it what you want), unrest in Syria that has left over 1,700 people dead, the people of Egypt struggling to put their country back together, and another revolution of sorts in Yemen. Also lets not forget Bahrain. Moving further east, we have the very unpopular Afghan War that seems to be dragging on forever with no progress, constant drone strikes in Pakistan that have left 56+ civilians dead in the last 2 days, and bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai just yesterday. Clearly things aren’t going too good.

In all of these incidents, civilians like you and I lost their lives. But to us- people who are far away from all the action, sitting in the comfort of our homes-all this news is just news. We pity the state of the world for a bit and then return to our lives. Maybe its because all of that terrible stuff is only happening to 1 million people and since we’re a 7 billion strong species  (yes we are no longer 6 billion), 1 million is insignificant? Maybe its because we just see ourselves as very fortunate and blessed while the others got unlucky? Or maybe we think we are too insignificant as individuals to do anything? Why are we so damn complacent about the state of our world?

How about the drought in the Horn of Africa that affects 10 million people? I was reading one article that said that out of desperation to save some of their kids, mothers were letting the weakest die just so they’d have enough food to feed the stronger ones. While on the topic of children, according to UNICEF, an estimated 22,000 children (defined as below the age of 5) die of poverty each day. And while on the topic of poverty, over 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day.How on earth do you and I sleep peacefully at night on our $1000 memory foam mattresses when there are hundreds of millions of people sleeping on dirt, resting their heads on flip flops, and scavenging for food? The “human race” is making huge steps forward but the poorest people, the people that make up the majority of the human race, are being left behind to die in circumstances they had no control over.

Enough ranting about how inhumane and foolish we are. If you’ve read this far and are just wondering why I didn’t cite my sources, or that one phrase of mine was innacurate etc. then you didn’t get the real message. Let me lay it out for you: You and I spend our lives in comfort while others rot away indirectly serving us with our pleasures and we don’t even give them a thought.

Monday, July 18th, is Nelson Mandela Day and I beg you to give up a minimum of 67 minutes of your comfortable lives to help someone. I don’t know if anyone outside of Southern Africa even knows about it but everyone here is ready to give up 67 minutes to do some good. Mandela gave 67 years of his life for the betterment of his world, so we best be able to give up 67 minutes. And if you don’t like the idea of putting Mandela’s name to it, then just go out and do some service. But make sure you do something. If your dry on ideas, here http://www.mandeladay.com/static/join.

Wake up from your slumber people. We all live in the same world.

Note: This is my personal rant and plea. I don’t mean to offend anyone. 

Tuli Block

 Team Francistown (Thomas, Iz, and I) spent this past weekend (July 8th-10th) exploring the Tuli Block in Eastern Botswana and this was something we had intended to do 2 weeks ago but couldn’t because we didn’t have a car. What attracted us to this sparsely populated area was the offer of night drives in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Night drives meant nocturnal animals and nocturnal animals meant leopards, bushbabies (Lesser Galago), porcupines, and a variety of other elusive species. Another attraction was the Limpopo River, which was the setting of Isabelle’s favorite bedtime story. Off to Tuli Block we went…
First, a little about Tuli. It’s a large swath of land that Chief Khama ceded to the British South Africa Company in the early 20th century. They found little use for the land and sold it off to private commercial farmers after World War 2. The farmers found that the land was so rough and rocky that they couldn’t really keep a lot of cattle on it and so in the 1960s converted the area into privately owned reserves to profit from the growing safari tourism industry. The unfenced North East Tuli Game Reserve is made up of a number of reserves but together is the largest privately owned reserve in Southern Africa. The farmers established luxury safari lodges on their land and these lodges exclusively run this area. We sought the assistance of the luxurious Tuli Safari Lodge (http://www.tulilodge.com/) for our night game drive but the place is wayyy too expensive for a bunch of university students so we arranged a campsite at Molema Bush Camp (http://www.molema.com/) which is also managed by Tuli Safari Lodge.

On a very cloudy Friday, we started our journey after work at 2:30 and headed towards Bobonong, which was 3 hours away (refer to the In Search of the Chief of Bobonong if you want to know where it is). At one point, we unfortunately found ourselves in a funeral procession on a single lane highway with atleast 15 cars ahead of us all going 60 kph on a 120 road. After Bobonong, there were no more fuelling stations and we, being cheap university students, decided that our half tank of fuel would be enough for the 90kmh to Tuli Block as well as the rest of the weekend. Dumb decision….

We reached the Molema Bush Camp turning in the Tuli Block at around 7:15PM after which we had 5km to go on dirt road to get to the actual place. It was pitch black and the bush around us was very dense and so we decided to go slowww and steady to get to our destination. So far, all our camping trips have been to places where there isn’t too much wildlife (Kubu Island), or the dangerous wildlife doesn’t enter the bush (Khama Rhino Sanctuary). Based on that, it was our expectation that Molema would be more of the same… We were so wrong…

About a kilometer along the path, we stumbled upon 3 or 4 young elephants and we all sort of just peed our pants in fright. Young elephants met mama elephants weren’t far and mama elephants meant a herd! Thomas was to the point where he chose to not look when I pointed at a newly discovered elephant in the bush just to the right of the car. We were 3 university students in a low sedan farr farrr away from any sort of civil comforts surrounded by a herd of elephants that seemed very intimidating in the dark. They gave us way and Thomas just darted through only to find numerous glittering eyes caught in the headlight. Thankfully they just turned out to be harmless impala, the natural feedstock of the large predators. We reached the Molema Bush Camp very on edge only to find that there was no gate or fence separating the wild from us. On one side of the bush was us, and on the other were the impalas (and other animals). It had taken us what felt like half an hour to cover 5km in a car…

Cecilia and Chris were the only staffers at the Molema Bush Camp, which consists of a number of campsites and 2 chalets all just a few meters away from the banks of the legendary Limpopo River. They were very accommodating and hospitable and kindly showed to our campsite after we had covered rules and regulations. In the darkness, we couldn’t really see much of the area but were able to acknowledge the presence of a large nyala tree that covered most of the campsite. Relieved at finally reaching our destination after a tense few hours, we quickly set about preparing dinner. Just as Thomas picked up the first piece of firewood to break it into more manageable pieces, a scorpion appeared by his foot. We admired it for all 30 seconds after which the critter became agitated and curled up its stinger ready to strike. For our safety, it was destroyed and buried.

Dinner consisted of bread with melted cheddar cheese, and cream of chicken soup, all prepared over a small fire and consumed without a spoon. As we ate dinner, we started hearing loud growling and groaning sounds from the bush but weren’t so afraid because the 2 other occupied campsites were still buzzing. About an hour later, when we were the only ones awake for miles and miles around, the sounds started to get quite terrifying and we decided to retreat to our tent and go to sleep. I fell asleep to the distant growls and yelps coming from the bush thinking that whatever was making those sounds wouldn’t dare venture close to us apex predators.

Probably 3 or 4 hours into my sleep, I was shoved awake by Thomas and Is who said they were hearing sounds just outside our tent. I didn’t hear anything, and so I just zoned them out and went to bed thinking that they were just being paranoid…

In the morning, I woke to an agitated Thomas who didn’t understand how I had slept through the night without hearing the sounds. The surprise to me came when we stepped out of our tent to discover baboon tracks all over our campsite and some very large hind leg prints less than a meter from our tent. It was determined that a troop of baboons had been making the sounds and had stopped at our campsite to explore. After further exploration of the campsite area, we found bushbuck tracks and about 15 meters away, fresh LEOPARD TRACKS!!!
Our campsite, shaded by a huge nyala tree and frequented by wildlife
Young leopard tracks

Breakfast consisted of baked beans and toast after which we headed to the banks of the Limpopo River about 20 meters from our campsite. The Limpopo River is the setting of a children’s short story by Rudyard Kipling called the “The Elephants Child” and it was a favorite of Is’ and hence our determination to get to it. We explored the bank and all the tracks on it and decided to head back using the “main” dirt road that connected all the campsites. A troop of baboons was encountered and out of pure fear, we dashed for the river, picking up sticks along the way to defend ourselves. Later in the day, Thomas described the feeling of being prey and that’s exactly what I was feeling. Although we were never in any real danger, a troop of baboons is capable of killing a leopard and all we had to defend ourselves was termite-infested twigs. It was terrifying.
On the banks of the Limpopo River
Because we didn’t have a 4WD, we had to take a longer route to Tuli Safari Lodge for our game drive and that took us 2 painstaking hours to complete. The place itself was the epitome of safari luxury with tree hyrax, duikers, warthogs, and glossy ibis roaming watered grass gardens and lounges that must have cost a fortune to construct. That’s not the best description, but imagine a safari lodge where someone would go for an expensive honeymoon. That’s what this place was.  Also, funny how that was the first time I had seen green grass in Botswana; in a luxury lodge surrounded by rough dry terrain.
Tuli Safri Lodge vehicles
A shy steenbok we encountered on our way to Tuli
Tree hyrax
The night drive turned out to be impossible because one of the safari cars had broken down and so we chose to do a 4-hour evening drive instead and that turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was a real game drive experience in the sense that there wasn’t a dense population of wildlife and the guide actually had to look for tracks to locate some things. The first antelope species we saw was the rare and elusive Klipspringer. After, we saw 2 male elephants that fake charged us on 2 separate occasions and it was quite the scare. The guide knew the elephant was just posturing and made no attempt to flee. We sort of just sat their in our open top safari car as the elephant flapped its ears, skipped towards us, trumpeted, and kicked up dust. 
Large posturing male elephant. We were on an elevated safari vehicle and he stood taller than us.

Other game included Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, giraffes, eland (africa’s largest antelope species), steenbok, the kori bustard (africa’s largest flying bird. It looks like a pterodactyl on takeoff), ostrich, and porcupines. 
Dirty Burchell's zebra

But it was our first sighting of a cackle of spotted hyenas at their den that stole the day. It was already dark when they were spotted but we probably sat there for a good 20 minutes getting insight into the lives of these despised scavengers. The scene seemed to be that the older hyenas were going out for a hunt and a mama was telling her cub to stay put in a cave under the watchful eye of a baby sitter. As the larger hyenas left, the cub came out of the den and started yelping and so all the hyenas returned and that’s when we left.
Spotted Hyena den
The smaller one was intrigued by his shadow
The cub in the cave on the left and the babysitter on the right.

By the time we returned to our campsite, our half tank of fuel had been reduced to 1 tiny bar just above the dreaded E for EMPTY. The closest gas station was in Bobonong about 100 km away and so we basically had to do that distance in 1 bar of fuel or get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Things were pretty tense. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our last meal of basmati rice and vegetable curry and hit the sack. We woke in the morning only to find that some other type of animal had been basically sniffing out Thomas as he slept and the tracks determined that it was a mongoose.

About a quarter of the way back to Bobonong, the fuel dial fell below the E and then went even lower, all the way down to the filliing station visual: That’s the lowest Ive ever seen a dial go. Thankfully our car served us well and made it all the way to Bobonong where we filled a quarter of the tank. By the time we got to Francistown, the dial was below E again. We basically spent the same amount on fuel as we did on renting the car. Ridiculous.

In the end, although we didn’t see any leopards or bushbabies, surprise elephant herds, a scorpion, elephant charges, and hyenas made this weekend well worth it. This coming weekend is a 4-day weekend and we will be enjoying our midsummer retreat where we discuss the successes and failures of the project thus far in the presence of the entire team. The location is Maun and the Okavango Delta so be ready for some insaneeeee pictures. For those of you who don’t know what the Okavango Delta is, watch the “Great Plains” or “Pole to Pole” episodes in the BBC Planet Earth series.

For an update on work related news, Isabelle and I started our job-profiling project to bring some structure and accountability to the organization. The organization also had their annual general meeting on Wednesday and it was quite the scene. Elections took place for the board members and more than 200 people turned up in the office yard to vote. In the end, the board members with the majority won in the most democratic manner: 2 candidates were running and each stood on opposing sides of the yard and people just picked which side to stand on. Heads were counted and the winning side hounded the opposition out of the yard. People then proceeded to cheer feverishly for about an hour after which it all fizzled out. And that’s how all AGMs should be conducted. Also, the midsummer report for QPID Projects should be completed by the end of this week and so if you’d like to know what QPID Ghana, and QPID Nunavut have been up to, let me know and Ill get you a copy. Stay tuned.

PS everyone should be looking into doing 67 minutes of good on July 18th to mark Nelson Mandela Day. More to follow on this.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Kubu Island, Makgadikgadi Pans

 Ill be recapping the weekend of July 1st-July 3rd where we traveled to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans to camp at Lekhubu Island  and honestly, its going to be impossible to bring justice to what we saw. I’m not trying to be corny by saying that. It’s actually hard to describe the sights because they were incomparable to any place else on this Earth.  Here’s what the Lonely Planet Guide to Botswana and Namibia had to say about this place:

“The Sowa, Nxai, and Ntwetwe Pans collectively comprise the 12,000-sq-km Makgadikgadi Pans. During the sizzling heat of late winter, the stark pans take on a disorienting and ethereal austerity. Heat mirages destroy the senses as imaginary lakes shimmer and disappear, ostriches take flight, and stones turn to mountains and float in mid-air.”
Ethereal austerity??? Flying ostriches and floating mountains??? :/

And this is what the book had to say about traveling on the pans:
“Prospective drivers should keep in mind that salt pans can have a mesmerizing effect, and even create a sense of unfettered freedom. Once you drive out onto the salt, remember that direction, connection, reason and common sense appear to dissolve. Although you may be tempted to speed off with wild abandon into the white and empty distance, exercise caution and restrain yourself. You should be aware of where you are at all times by using a map and compass (GPS units are not foolproof)"
The book basically said that this place was a major mind trip. And it really was. Here is how things played out:

After weeks upon weeks of desperately searching for a car (calling FOR SALE ads and seeing if people would give us their car for the weekend. Crazy cheap university students…), Thomas’ host Mots allowed us to take one of his cars. It was Sir Seretse Khama Day on Friday July 1st and so while you Canadians were enjoying your long weekend, we were too. It was decided that for meals, guys were going to cook lunch and dinner on Friday and girls would cover all the meals on the next day but this spiraled into a major competition of the sexes. We bought approximately 500-pula worth of food for the long weekend and headed off towards the mining town of Orapa. Thomas was driving on the left for the first time and I was the only one who had driven on the left side before so I got automatic Shotgun. I was uber-tense early on, but Tom adjusted really fast and we reached the village of Matshumo in just over 2 hours covering a distance of 220 km.

At the Gaing-O Community Trust office (Kubu Island is a community based project), we were told that our Toyota Windom (the Japanese made equivalent of a Lexus ES) was wayyyy too low to make it onto the salt pans…bummer. We were told we had to first pay up so that the 1 beaten up office truck could go to the closest gas station 2 hours away and get gas for our trip. 3 hours later at 5:45PM with the sun setting, after our patience had worn super thin, our truck arrived and we were off (again in the back of a pickup truck). The first 30 minutes of our experience were spent trying to stay as far away from the sides of the truck as the driver had no care in the world that he was driving through ultra dense thorn bushes with unprotected passengers sitting in the back. The “road” was nothing more than a rock/sand path often taken by 4WDs and here we were in our pickup cruising at 70kmph. It was absolutely terrifying knowing that we were surrounded by needle sharp thorns but for some reason we were all too giddy and just loving life.

As soon as we broke out of the dense bush, the salt pans started and everyone just sort of lost their “cool”. The sky blanketed us with sunset hues and all we could see ahead of us was flat pans. Coupled with the smell of salt and the emerging constellations, it was all a little overwhelming. During the next 40 km to Lekhubu Island, this part of the earth descended into darkness and we were left in awe by the streak of the Milky Way across the sky. Its kind of funny because this was a simple truck ride to our destination and we were left without words and we still hadn’t seen the pans (it was too dark).  

This is what the Lonely Planet book described Kubu Island, “Along the southwestern edge of Sowa Pan is this ghostly, baobab-laden rock, which is entirely surrounded by a sea of salt.” Its nature is such that the average tourist doesn’t come here because the island has no wildlife sightings to offer apart a small brown hyena population that calls this place home. We were greeted to Lekhubu Island by a starlit gigantic baobab tree and were shown to our campsite (Camp Impala 11) where we set up camp, started our fire and got down to the business of dinner. Thomas and I served cheese bread, and grilled peri-peri chicken salad and it was probably better than anything I could put together in a fully functioning kitchen. We concluded our meal with banana boats, and marshmallows and hit the sack after some fireside chitchat.

On Saturday, we woke up at 7AM and headed straight to the island shores and then onto the lake where, 10,000 years ago, there was water. The pans are covered in a layer of salt and appear really dry but the soil under the salt is moist.  We had some fun with sunrise photography after which the girls went back to the campsite to prepare breakfast and Thomas and I went exploring.
Our first real site of the salt pans at sunrise. That granite boulder became our go to place for much of the trip.
Thomas "ascending"

2 hours later, we returned to find that our breakfast of cinnamon buns had gone cold. We grabbed some water and headed out to explore the island. 
Camp Impala 11

This is where it becomes really hard to describe. The salt pans stretched beyond the horizon where the heat mirages just blurred everything. We all decided to walk in different directions and I came to the point where I lost sight of everyone else and stumbled onto a field of tracks leading to one spot, possibly a watering hole in the summer. 

Tracks leading to one place

Brown Hyena tracks

If you enlarge the picture, you'll see Iz and Thomas on the horizon. This stretched for miles around us
After about 2 hours just out on the salt pans, we returned to the island and perched ourselves on the highest point and just admired our surroundings. We unknowingly also explored “the shrine” which is a cave type place that is spiritually important to the locals. San ancestors used to believe that their God lived under the rocks. The boundary wall of a settlement from the Great Zimbabwean empire was also explored. The island was last inhabited 500 years ago but before that, there had been San people here for 30,000 years and there are artefacts from the Stone and Iron Age though we weren’t able to spot any. The baobab trees were also quite the site. They are referred to as the “upside-down” trees, were the residence of the King lemur from Madagascar, and are just so unique. 

A large baobab tree. The baobab fruit has an extremely hard shell but a powdery white inside that tastes sour.
The huge baobab that greets all visitors upon arrival. This thing was so big that it was near impossible to get it all in the shot.
We returned to the openness of the pans for the sunset though it didn’t compare to the sunset over Namibia, it was still pretty magical. The new moon also decided to make an appearance and that was pretty significant for me as a Muslim as it reminded me that in just a month, Ramadan would be starting.   
My favourite picture

We returned to the campsite where the girls literally blew the “cooking competition” out of the water. We were served with a delightful meal consisting of garlic bread, pasta with tomato basil sauce, steamed/grilled vegetables, and another vegetable dish with zucchinis, mushrooms, red peppers, and carrots all made on the spot with no previous preparation. The girls had won the competition hands down.

After dinner, we decided to wander out onto the pans and do some stargazing. We had barely made it past the shore of the island when we decided that it would be too dangerous for us to go any further. After about 40 minutes, and after a round of laughter, we heard growling sounds coming from the darkness and everyone jumped up and headed back from the island. Having seen hyena tracks earlier on in the day, and there being a lack of other large predators, we concluded that we had been scared off the pans by brown hyenas. Makes for a better story too.
high ISO, low shutter speed. This picture still doesn't do justice to the stars we saw

The next morning we woke at 5:45, saw the sunrise from atop some large granite boulders, and packed up. I don’t know how many of you used Word Art in Microsoft Word to try and make fancy headers and titles, but the “dawn” shades that were used as color filling were an exact depiction of what the sky looked like that morning... Driving back to Matshumo was just exciting as getting there and by 1PM we were back in Francistown.

Reading over this post makes me realize that unless you go to this place yourself, you wont comprehend how magical and unreal this place actually was. If you want a video of what the place is like, watch the Top Gear episode where they try and cross the Makgakgadi Pans and camp at Kubu Island.

We’re planning on going to Tuli Block this weekend to try and spot the elusive leopard, and bush babies. Will post on Tuesday. Stay tuned and take care.


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

True Men

So far, all my posts have been about some pretty awesome adventures, mishaps and what not, but they only represent the happenings of weekends. For the other 5 days of the week, the QPID Bots team works 8 to 5 and I just wanted to share a little about the work experience which may not be as exciting as our weekends, but more valuable than any sort of sightseeing. I touched on all this stuff at the end of my first post but being here for a while has given me a better understanding of the situation and purpose of the organization I’m at.  Let me start with an overview of how everything played out. Brace yourselves (or skip over this one) for a more serious post:

The first time I heard of the position of cooperant with Queen’s Project on International Development was during frosh week back in 2009 where the club had a booth at an event that was meant to introduce us newbies to the various engineering related clubs and design teams. The thought of spending the summer working in a foreign country was enticing but it was a thought that was looking too far into the future and at the time, I needed to focus on settling into my new environment.

Second year rolled around and I decided to get more involved in clubs and really make good use of the opportunities. Becoming a cooperant for QPID seemed like a pretty big challenge but the summer experience looked too good to pass up. The project locations were Nunavut, Ghana, and Botswana and right away, Nunavut was eliminated because I would not have been able to endure a cold “summer”. I applied at the end of October 2010 and was thankfully hired for Bots after passing the application review, selection day, and interview.

November through to beginning of May was spent preparing for the QPID Botswana Project along with the 3 other cooperants (Isabelle (my cooperant partner), Chloe, and Lyndsay), the site director (Thomas), the project manager (Davina), and the rest of the QPID Projects team. Ghana and Nunavut have been long running QPID projects but Botswana was a new location and so no one was sure of what to expect which made everything a lot more adventurous and exciting. We arrived in Botswana on June 9th, and started work on the 15th.

Chloe and Lyndsay work in Kasane at a human rights organization by the name of Ditshwanelo and Thomas, Is, and I work at an HIV/AIDS organization based in Francistown by the name of True Men Trust. To understand the kind of work this organization does, you first need to understand the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana:

The country has a population of approximately 1.9 million (which is tiny considering its size) and more than 300,000 people are HIV+. Looking at percentages, 24.2% of the population between 15 and 49 years of age is HIV+. That is the second highest rate of HIV infection with only Swaziland having a larger percentage of a population that is HIV+ (keep in mind that Swaziland has a population of 1.1 million). Based on the visual below (which I took from Gapminder World by Hans Rosling), you can see that the life expectancy of the average Batswana dropped from 64 years in 1989-1991 to 49 years in 2002. 

In Gapminder, this visual was titled, "The rise, fall, and rise of health in Botswana"
2002 is when the government started implementing programs to deal with HIV/AIDS and these included PMTCT programs and subsidized ART. In fact, Botswana is only one of 9 countries in the world that provides above 75% coverage of anti-retroviral medication. The life expectancy is on the rise indicating that major steps are being taken to combat the virus but there are still huge challenges being faced. The biggest and most difficult to overcome is trying to change people’s behaviors and attitudes that are commonly associated with “culture” and that is one of the main focuses of True Men.

True Men currently runs three main projects, each with a global funder:

·      The PMTCT program is funded by Pathfinder International and targets the issue of mother to child transmission. True Men employs around 15 peer mothers who spend their days at various antenatal clinics around the city.
·      RTI funds a program targeting commercial sex workers and the truck drivers that commercial sex workers cater to. The reason for this is that HIV rates are much higher along trucking routes like the ones through Francistown and its primarily because truckers have to spend excessively long times on the road and waiting for paper approvals at borders and consequently entertain themselves with commercial sex workers.
·      BNAPS funds a program that targets the issue of multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP) and this, in my opinion, is the most important project. The reason for this is that many people here believe that it is culturally acceptable to be in multiple concurrent partnerships but this leads to dangerously large sexual networks where if one person contracts HIV, the entire network of sexual partners is affected.

At True Men, our work is very self-directed when we’re not working with the project directors. No one will tell you what you are supposed to be doing so we have to constantly remind ourselves that though no one is bossing us around, there is a lot to be done. We have a list of projects that we have in mind that would increase the effectiveness of the organization and we plan to implement them throughout the summer. Our first major assignment was to conduct workshops for the peer educators in the RTI and BNAPS projects. The workshops, which were conducted on June 29th and June 30th, were a great success and covered the topics of counseling skills, group counseling, professionalism, presentation skills, communication skills, sensitivity training, and mental preparation where each intern presented on a subject of competency. I presented on the topic of mental preparation and covered techniques to prepare the mind for a client meeting. We tried to keep the workshop as interactive as possible and included scenario/case study practice as well as a debate type exercise. The director had also asked for a post-workshop assessment and so that is what we had been working on this week. For our next assignment, we plan on working on an internal development project to bring transparency and structure to the organization. Having already visited antenatal clinics for introductions, we’ll also be starting some fieldwork of our own by accompanying peer educators and seeing how community interactions take place. Lets see how everything goes.
The guys that work at the headquarters. The ladies weren't invited to this photo shoot.
Ill start to include work updates at the end of my posts if anything super interesting happens. If you have any questions queries, concerns, let me know.