Great White Place

We drive through the Mopani scrub. Kudu and Rhinoceros browse on the Koedoebos. The scene framed by the multiple trunks of the African Moringa which emerge from its swollen base. The truck skirts out onto the Etosha pan, a Bantu word meaning great white place. A fitting description for a 1000 million year old salt mineral pan stretching the Kalahari Basin.

Originally this was a lake fed by the Kunene river but the river changed course and thousands of years ago the lake dried up. The San people believe in a legend that a village was invaded and everyone except for one woman was murdered. She was so upset that she cried and her tears formed a huge lake. When her tears dried the great white pan remained.

In the far distance on a clear day you can make out the outline of the savannah bushland bordering the pan, but today the white earth collides with the grey sky and the dust and heat is belied by the oncoming rain.

The warm rains of the storm lightly lashing the sides of the truck as Rod reaches over and grabs my Discman, fumbling with it for a moment. A couple of false starts. Then he smiles and turns it up as high as our speakers would go. We wind down the windows the rain cooling the mugginess of the day and breathing a freshness through the cabin. We pull up in the middle of the basin. Toto’s Africa now streaming out into the air.

“We getting out?” I ask.

As was customary with Rod he surprised me continually by making profound statements that contradict his looks and sit juxtaposed with his usual conversation and overall demeanor.

“Robbo, in life you can’t wait for the rain to stop, sometimes you must learn to dance in it” and with that, he was out of the cabin, arms stretched to either side, like Andy Dufrane from Shawshank Redemption allowing the rains of Africa to wash over him, touching him both outside and within.

I leap from the cabin also, calling to the passengers to join us, hitting repeat on Toto and bounding past Rod into the rain along the salt encrusted earth. The music blares from the truck’s cabin “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, that’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do, I bless the rains down in Africa, gonna take some time to do the things we never have”

We all stand out on the white pan singing Africa at the top of our lungs, passengers moving past their initial confusion embrace the moment. The cooling breeze against the rain falling on our faces, soaking through our clothes as we spin around and laugh and dance in the storm.

As if by some evolutionary leap, we are able to feel our surroundings, the soul of the African wild embracing us. Here we connect, in this instant, opening the page of our travel adventure to a moment of truth. To a moment of understanding of the true meaning of journey and exploration. We embrace each other, miles away from the chattering of keyboards and the demands of business meetings. Each of us living, really living. Experiencing Africa in the way you would in the movies, like you would in your dreams.

We return to the truck, our spirits wide awake, each of us knowing we were all a part of something that enriched each of our souls and left us with a feeling that will stay with us long after this moment has passed.

The search for the Pangolin

Today is World Pangolin day and so I thought I would share with you a little bit about my search for this amazing little creature.

Pangolin are the world’s most illegally traded animal. The Asian market uses the scales for jewellery and medicines (most likely for impotence) and drain foetal blood for an elixir to reduce blood pressure. This wonderfully funny looking creature is now critically endangered.

The Pangolin is the only mammal covered in scales (made from the same material found in a rhino’s horn), it can live on the ground or in trees, it eats up to 70 million insects a year and its tongue can be longer than its body. In 2012 Sir David Attenborough chose the Pangolin as one of his ten favourite species he would save from extinction.

I first became intrigued about Pangolin when I was asking a Zimbabwean local about black magic.  He told me a story of a worker at a cotton mill near Harare in Zimbabwe who had found a Pangolin in the bush. The worker didn’t know what the bizarre creature was; describing it as a lizard that walked on its hind legs that had fish like scales. So he killed it.

African tribal beliefs are that the Pangolin is a mythical creature. This belief may partly lie in the fact that Pangolins are attracted to eat shiny objects and as such, years ago, when you killed a pangolin and cut open its stomach it sometimes contained diamonds.

The worker in this story showed the Pangolin to his co-workers who explained what it was and that it was very bad luck to kill a Pangolin because it held magical powers. Because the Pangolin was already dead the workers ate the animal. That day the cotton mill they were working at stopped. Without warning and without explanation.

The German owners of the mill called for their technicians to source the problem but no problem could be found. They engaged electricians from Harare who also could find no problem with the equipment. They had no choice but to call on their German headquarters to fly down experts in the machinery mechanics but they too could find no trace of a problem with the mill. It was a mystery that the mill could be in perfect working order but simply would not turn on.

Eventually word got round the crew of the worker who killed the Pangolin. Some of the men went to the site manager and explained that the killing of the Pangolin had caused the machinery to stop working. The German managers at first dismissed this information but as the days grew to weeks they became increasingly desperate for a solution.

The workers finally convinced them to call in the local tribal chief who suggested if the bosses promise not to punish the worker for his mistake in killing the pangolin, and for a moderate fee of course, he would be able to fix the situation. The German managers reluctantly agreed to payment on result and the chief called in the local witch doctor.

The witch doctor performed a ritual and when he was finished the chief sent the managers back to the mill. The machinery began to work immediately.

 

I have been searching for a Pangolin in the wild for over a decade throughout Africa and Asia since hearing that story and last year I got my best chance yet to finally see one.

My friends and I were staying at Erindi Reserve in Namibia. It was my first time back in Africa since I finished working as an overland tour guide many years ago. The first few days we had been on morning and evening game drives and by night we braii over a fire twenty metres from a waterhole where we were visited by Hippo, Crocodile, Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hardtebeest, Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra. Not bad viewing over our boerewors.

However this day we were to join our guide PJ to monitor a male Pangolin on the other side of the Reserve. We started out through the savannah of Erindi following a weak signal from the tagged Pangolin’s transmitter. PJ uses the transmitters to gather information about the Pangolin to help ensure their survival in the wild.

Early into the drive we encountered an Aardwolf with her cub. Aardwolves are shy nocturnal insectivorous mammals. It is extremely rare to see one at all, especially in the middle of the morning. Two Aardwolf cubs peek from the hole in their midden and curiously glance at us before darting away and returning. We unfortunately must interrupt this beautiful moment, we have a more pressing engagement with the Pangolin.

We continue through the scrub when we spot a Lion pride of nine. PJ identifies this pride as one led by Etosha, a strong and aggressive matriarch. Always a blessing, we must give appropriate time to appreciate the majesty of this animal. As we sat transfixed to the scene metres in front of us, two new males approach the pride.

PJ turns to me with an excited look.

“Takeover?” I ask. He nods back with a grin. This was truly a rare experience and one that sent thrills through our group. Traditionally the approaching males will kill all the cubs, bringing the lionesses in oestrus so they can start to build their own pride.

We watched on for hours as the lions tactically positioned themselves and attacked. However, after an aggressive and violent start, Etosha was too powerful and the males submitted, leaving her pride in tact. We still had a long way to go and had burned valuable Pangolin time. A detour that no one regretted.

One more stop to fearfully admire a three metre Black Mamba that crossed the path of the vehicle. I am told if a Black mamba bites you it is best to find a shady tree and lie down beneath it… dead bodies don’t smell as much in the shade. We watched on and followed slowly alongside the snake that seemed unphased by our presence. The Pangolin signal was strong, we weren’t far, so we said goodbye to the terrifying Mamba, all hoping we would never see one this close again.

Eventually we made it to where the transmitter was sending its signal but it appeared the Pangolin had already gone underground. We found fresh spoor as we walked around an Aardvark hole. We could smell the Pangolin, on musk, deep in the hole but he wasn’t coming out to meet us this day.

On the way home we found another pride of five lions. This one PJ said was led by Shadow. A 230kg male who terrifyingly got his name from his habit of following people home. We again sat transfixed to the pride before the declining sun cast a caramel hue across the savannah and beckoned us home. Diligently watching we didn’t have Shadow on our tail.

We eventually got back to our camp after an exciting day in the Reserve. Once again the Pangolin had eluded me.

Bizarrely, I kind of like that though. I love that nature isn’t on demand. Many years I have spent roaming the wild, looking for the Pangolin. Each trek leading me through breathtaking scenery and chance encounters with wildlife. It occurs to me, the experiences I have had in search of the Pangolin have contained some of the most deeply enriching and exciting moments.

I hope I see a Pangolin one day. Regardless of whether I am lucky enough to spot one though, given my encounters on the way, searching for this magical creature may bring some of the most rewarding times of my life.

 

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.

An African Morning

The shimmering mirage creating a river in front of us through the barren and alien landscape. Cruising through Kuisab Canyon, the sky is bright, the koppies familiar, plummeting into a maelstrom of ravines. A series of striated earthy colour surrounds us and creates a back drop in a study of browns. The wind is given form by the dust trailing our truck…. I know this road.

I had now been guiding in Africa for the best part of a year. We head north through Namibia and make our bush camp.

Sleeping in the bush can be confusing. The groans, gasps and cries in the night of animals I didn’t know initially disorientate years of conditioning. But now I am woken by a noise. It was a familiar sound and I lay there. Still. I feel the stony ground through my swag against my back. Breathing slowly and silently, terrified. Skin prickly, I hear the throaty exhalation of a male lion. Listening intently, trying to determine distance….. “huh….. huh….. huuuuhh”. It’s close, very close. I lift my head, ever so slowly and look into the darkness. There are no other points of reference. I can’t see anything. Slowly I release my arm from my swag, and ever so stealthily I reach behind me and grab hold of the side panel of the truck. Slowly I pull myself under the truck and peek out from under it.

Another low grumbling growl comes from the darkness. My hands tremble as I reach for my swag and pull it under with me. For the next hour, I keep a silent vigil. Eventually I fall asleep, satisfied the roar of the lion is now miles from me.

I wake up, as always just before dawn, crawl out from under the truck and kick the Black Backed Jackals away from the base of my swag. I wrap my maasai blanket around me, light my cigarette and move to tend the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to life, grinning that Rod is also under the truck up the other end. He obviously faced his own midnight confrontations with the passing pride.

My Grandfather used to tell me pre-dawn was the best part of the day. It won’t be long until the older of the tourists stir but until then this is my time. The air is crisp and so still it can noticeably be disrupted by the turbulence of movement. The sky sand washed, dust cleansed, incrementally shading to blue. I stand there, the coldest part of the night. Watching the movement of elephant, of buck, of monkey as a side show to my focus on the horizon. Gripping the maasai blanket tight around my shoulders as I light another cigarette. Enjoying the cool against my face that barges past the fluttering edges of my blanket. And then the sun pokes up. The expanse providing room for awakening clouds to battle, tumble and streak away. Levitating herds grip the pinks and dissolve into the blues.

Sometimes a passenger gets up and tries to join me in conversation “Wait…..” I would say “listen, watch” and we stand there waiting for the brightness of the sun’s orange to force a squint upon us and the heat rush our faces. Then you notice the beating of wings. The birds darting through the tousled head of the tree tops, the hum of the insects keeping one pitch, then the whisper of the morning breeze through the acacia. I never believed my Grandfather until now.

Silently we stand, connecting. It’s a failure of the western world that it becomes an awkwardness when the silence lingers and inevitably nature’s magic is broken. I’m never the first to speak but when they do it is always in some blessing of the wild. It doesn’t matter. The troops are rising, back to the fire to get breakfast organised and to discuss the sounds everyone heard last night and their hypotheses on the creatures from which they emanated.

Acacia’s Parents

Everyone has that one amazing story. The one you will retell at the next hostel. Sometimes you will hear it in the first ten minutes and sometimes you will have to dig deeper, because not everyone knows their amazing story. It depends more on the listener rather than the teller.

I was thinking back over my travels. Thinking about the countless travellers I had met. One stuck out in my mind. It was a brief encounter about 12 years ago.

I don’t think I ever knew her name. If I had to guess I thought it may have been Susan. She was another encounter on my journey. Another person to pass time with, to share an experience. It was at Acacia Camp in Kenya that I met her. I only knew her for twenty minutes, though I walked away with a great respect for her as one of the people who bravely seek out a new way to live.

I asked her what she was doing way out here?

“We are back here visiting” She said. “My husband and I actually started this camp many years ago now and named it after our first born girl Acacia.” Acacia circled her legs, she had dark caramel skin with beautiful blonde curls in her hair.

Susan was a white Canadian who moved to the Mara years before to study the lives of the Masaai people. At first she wasn’t accepted by the women of the community but after time she began integrating into their way of life. It was then that she met her husband David. At least I think his name was David. He spoke no English and she no Maasai but they began teaching each other and their relationship grew.

In love and married they eventually became pregnant. Susan did not want the baby to be born in Africa so she got on a plane back to Vancouver. Unfortunately she had to take an earlier flight than David and so David made his way to Nairobi airport and caught a flight on to Heathrow for his transfer to Toronto.

David joined our conversation, he was tall and very dark with a strong look and kind eyes. David added that he had his spear taken from him when he reached Heathrow. So in full Masaai blanket, looped earlobe holes, a club , limited English and an onward ticket to Toronto he roamed Heathrow looking for his next flight.

This was the first time David had been out of his country. Another traveller who recognized him as a Masaai rescued him and directed him to his gate, telling him to sit there and when all the other people get up around him, he should follow them.

“So what was the most amazing thing for him being in a western civilization?” I asked. Susan jumped in to answer.
“Well he was so captivated by the light switch, he used to stand there and switch it on and off”

I asked David what he was thinking at the time, he chuckled subtly “I was amazed at being able to turn the sun on and off”

“Maasai men are very proud and, as a woman, you cannot teach them anything unless they request you to” Susan continues. “We were in the hospital one time when I was heavily pregnant about to give birth. I asked him for a can of coke from the vending machine. He took the coins, went to the front of the machine, assessed the coin slot and the buttons. Put the coins in and hit the button and with a clunk the can of coke rattled to the tray below him. He cautiously opened the tray, took out the coke and handed it to me sitting in a wheelchair. David then bent down and looked into the flap, straightened and moved from one side of the machine to the other then tried looking behind the machine. Nodding his head he seemed pretty comfortable that he knew what was going on. Of course I dared not clarify. Any questions he may have had were his to ask.

A few days later we were driving and we went through a McDonalds drive through. We drive up to the little box and a voice came out, ‘may I take your order.’ At this David was shocked. He had understood that there was a guy in the coke machine handing out cans and while he thought it was a terrible job to be in the box with no windows he could not believe how small the man in the box was at the McDonalds drive through. He has had to learn quickly.”

My time with Susan and David was cut short and although I got to share the briefest snippet of their life, my time with them is one that will stay with me for years to come.

I understand David now works at a hardware store in Toronto.