Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Southern Swing

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted, and a lot has happened since then. In fact, only one more full day is left until we leave Maputo! The time has truly flown by, so I’m going to condense this blog post as much as possible for all our sakes. On June 21, we left for a two-week travel extravaganza which my dad has called “The Southern Swing.” In two weeks, we visited three countries and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, stayed in at least seven hotels and one tent, took three flights, met countless interesting people, and carried one backpack each.
Our first stop was Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where we met up with our guide, Justin, and his protégé, Moffat. Victoria Falls is a little town that plays host to the largest waterfall in the world, the mere spray of which was enough to soak us to the bone.
The next day, we headed to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, and while we were there, we stopped by the Wild Dog Conservancy. Wild dogs are the second most endangered predators in the world, and the conservancy provides shelter to individuals who cannot survive in the wild, either temporarily or permanently. Three dogs lived at the conservancy at the time—two of them were physically unable to survive in the wild, one because of malnourishment and the other because of a bad leg.  The third dog, however, named Aurora, was being kept there temporarily. Wild dogs are extremely social animals, and while they are extremely successful hunters in packs, they can’t bring down prey by themselves. When Aurora’s sister was killed in a confrontation with lions, she was brought to the conservancy which plans to introduce other wild dogs to her. Once a pack is formed, the entire group can be released back into the wild.

The day we visited the falls, we perused activities that we could do in the following days, and we should have known that we were in for a new experience when Caleb set eyes on the adrenaline-inducing ones. Our fate was sealed the minute he saw the Gorge Swing. The swing is sort of like a bungee-jump, except that you’re right-side up and instead of springing back up after the fall, you swing out over the gorge and then are pulled up. We did two other activities first—the Flying Fox, in which you are suspended in a flying position and slide out over the gorge on a zipline-type line, and the Zipline itself. Each activity was a little bit more intense than the next, and I think they prepared us somewhat compared to if we had gone straight for the swing. Nevertheless, when the time came for us to do the gorge swing, at least some of us were nervous. John was the first to jump, and as he did he yelled “one more day”—because even essentially jumping off a cliff is an appropriate time for a Les Miserables reference.
Caleb was next, and he was smiling happily before, during, and after. Although he and John had both described the swing enthusiastically, I felt nervous not so much for the fall but for the moment right before. As I approached the platform I was shaky, and I was too preoccupied to think of a catch phrase to yell. After I jumped, I had a quick thought of “what have I done?” and then, even before the freefall was over, I stopped being afraid, opened my eyes, and thought how proud I was that I had jumped. For a three-second freefall, I feel like I had a lot of time to think. It felt almost as if I was in a dream. When the harness caught me, I felt relieved. I was thinking about a Bible verse, actually: “When I said: “my foot is slipping,” your love, oh Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” I don’t know that the gorge swing is a particularly spiritual experience, but for me, jumping off the platform and trusting that everything would be fine, and then looking up at my family smiling and waving at the top and looking down at the gorge and the distance from which I had fallen, I felt very content. And of course I was thankful for my low blood pressure. Dad conquered the gorge swing wearing his Piggly Wiggly t-shirt, of course.
The next day, it was time for white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River. We found ourselves among some interesting rafting partners, some of which did not greatly contribute to our raft’s welfare. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the rapids if not the long, rocky hike from the river to the road.

On June 25, we crossed into Botswana, where our first stop was Chobe National Park. There, we experienced one of the best game drives we have ever been on. The first thing we saw upon entering the park was my personal favorite antelope, the rare and shy Sable. We were able to see two individuals and a herd, and our guide, Richard, was extremely obliging when we wanted to follow them.
Chobe is famous for its elephants, and we were not disappointed as we watched large groups crossing the river and munching on leaves. These elephants were used to humans passing through to look at them, and they were comfortable enough to let us see the young ones.
But although they were at ease among humans, the elephants weren’t totally carefree. Chobe is also home to lions, and they weren’t interested in elephants for their photogenic qualities. The dominant male and female of the pride had taken down a two-to-three-year-old elephant, an impressive feat for only two lions.
Just when we thought we’d seen everything we could hope to see in one drive, we saw another car stopped to take pictures. When we saw what was hopping along in the grass, we could scarcely believe it—I’ll give you a hint: it’s black and white, and it doesn’t care—it was a honey badger.
On the 27th, we headed to Maun, touted as “your gateway to the Okavango Delta” and on the 28th, we went into the Delta itself. In the delta, the main form of transportation is the mokoro, a flat-bottomed canoe-type boat which is traditionally made from the bark of the kigelia, or sausage tree, though modern mokoros are generally made from fiberglass, since the tree is protected. Mokoros are propelled by long poles, and our polers were absolutely graceful with them (and I learned later that grace isn’t easy in a mokoro). As we were transported to our island campsite, we came across a bit of a roadblock in the form of eight hippos who didn’t want to let us pass. We decided to wait, but the hippos were lazy and patient, and they weren’t going anywhere. Of course, with hippos, giving them their space is essential, so our polers took an alternative route. When we reached our camp, we set up tents and were shown around the grounds. That evening, we went for a nature walk around the island, and we came across a herd of zebra just as the sun was setting.
The next day we went for a morning game drive, attempted to learn to pole the mokoros ourselves, and later enjoyed a ride around the delta with the professionals in charge of the poling. That night, an announcement was made that our hosts were going to share some of their culture with us via song, and we ended the day with songs, riddles, and games around the campfire.
The next day, it was time to leave the delta, and even though we had a great time, it was good timing as far as our accommodations, because I was starting not to feel well—one of the risks a person takes by eating fish while camping. And the next day, July 1, we were scheduled to fly to Namibia, so I went ahead and went to the doctor’s office before the airport and he gave me the nastiest antibiotic I’ve ever had to take. After that, we said goodbye to Justin and Moffat, and to John, who returned to Maputo.
We began the Namibian portion of our trip in the capital, Windhoek, where we picked up our rental car, a Jeep Wrangler with the name “Malory” painted on the front, and on July 2 drove out into the desert to Soussusvlei. Though the drive took up a good portion of our day, we were surrounded by beautiful scenery and even some wildlife in the form of ostriches, springboks, and oryx (specifically, gemsboks).

On July 3, we took Malory out to Soussusvlei’s famous Deadvlei, named for the dead trees which grew there when the Deadvlei wasn’t so dry. But the area where the trees were was surrounded by giant red dunes, and the hike up is tiring. Since I was still recovering from my bad-fish incident, I took it easy and Dad and I took a flatter detour to the Deadvlei. The smaller dunes gave me at least a taste of dune hiking. When you take a step, your feet sink into the fine sand and it’s hard on the knees, but the hike is exponentially easier if you step in the footprints of those who have hiked up before you. As I climbed up the vast hills and looked at the others around me, some of them reaching the tallest peaks after a slow, graceful, climb, and relied on the footprints to hoist me up, I kept thinking of Isaac Newton’s remark regarding his intellectual achievements: “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

On the Fourth of July (Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans), we had reached Swakopmund, a city on the coast of Namibia—the west coast of Africa, thus completing our east coast to west coast sweep. After a morning of walking on the beach and looking at the flamingoes gathered there, followed by a trip to the aquarium, it was time for another sand dune related activity. Using snowboards, we surfed the dunes. It was a little scary at first, and I was awkward on a snowboard, but Caleb, who is accustomed to snowboarding, took to it right away. In fact, when he jokingly claimed that he was a professional snowboarder, another woman who was dune surfing with her family asked me if it was true.

Friday, our final day in Namibia, we took a day trip to Spitzkoppe, a granite rock formation and its surrounding area. On some of the rocks, Bushmen paintings can be found—this one depicts a rhinoceros and two “half-human, half-animals” which represent the Bushmen wearing animal skins and approaching an animal on all fours after rubbing themselves with wild sage to mask their human scent. Paintings like these were used to tell other groups what kind of game is in the area, where to find water, what hunting methods were most successful for the group that did the paintings, and what perils they faced along the way.

Like a Bushmen painter, I hope that this blog post which I’m leaving for you was interesting and maybe a little informative, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story. I look forward to talking to you guys soon in more detail! Until then, be well, do everything you can, stay away from camp fish, and remember that every step you take in the sand is still one half-regular-step further than no steps at all. 

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