Breaking my Blog Silence:
a Safari Update

Greetings from Egypt. I apologize for my modern-day-technology version of radio silence, but it was practically unavoidable. The blame for my blog silence rests squarely in two places: (1) the lack of available technology in Africa, and (2) US and Indian governmental affairs (more on this one later).

I know it’s been over a month since I blogged, and after the onslaught of “are you alive” emails I received, I decided I had better find some time to say hello.

Since I last posted, I’ve been on 12 flights across 5 countries, been in one near-death experience, slept on an airport floor, seen a doctor, cried to a consulate and watched a gazelle be killed and eaten. Just your typical travel stuff. It is a lot to detail…. too much so… but without further ado, here are many of the highlights:

Safari #1: Overland from Namibia to Botswana to Zambia

This 10-day overland trip began in Windhoek, Namibia… and right away I knew this trip was going to be different. First of all, I was the youngest person in the group…. a distinction I’ve yet to have on this trip (as most often I’m one of the oldest). Also, save one guy from Ireland, the group was all American… another oddity for this trip, as I’ve been traveling with mostly non-Americans.

The tour was a “comfort” class trip (the only available one to fit in my schedule) and therefore my accommodations can best be described as “African posh”– which basically meant my tents had beds in them but I still needed to search for random wandering hippos and warthogs before I left the tent for the toilet.

I was a roommate with Meghan, a 39 yr old from Atlanta whose parents were on the trip with us as well. I was only in Namibia for 2 days… and the highlight was interacting with a Bushman tribe in gobabis. Although I felt it was a bit staged, the Bushman (wearing very little clothes) showed us how they hunt and make jewelry. With only 3000 people left in that tribe, they are a diminishing people, becoming more and more exposed to the western ways of life.

We left Namibia and traveled on a Cessna SIX SEATER plane to the Okavango delta. The delta was by far the highlight of this trip. I was paired up with Alex, a 35 yr old guy from Ireland, and the only other member of the group traveling solo. We took a mokoro (fiberglass canoe), being pushed by our guide Jackson with a long pole, through the delta and the hippo pools to the area of the delta where you can do a walking safari. Gunless and alone on the island with the animals, we made our way around. It was amazing to see the elephants and giraffes just 40 meters away, with no protection between us but nature. Alex and I, being the most active members of our group, asked if we could change our itinerary and do 2 walking safaris instead of 2 mokoro rides.

So the next day, our guide Jackson took us to an area of the delta not usually visited this time of year…. made evident when the delta was too low to use the mokoro, and we had to get out into the hippo and crocodile infested waters and wade our way across pulling the boat behind us. We arrived on that island with a few minutes to dry off when Jackson pointed out some elephants. He reminded Alex and I again of how to act if we unexpectedly come upon certain wildlife (run like hell if it’s a buffalo, stand absolutely still if it’s an elephant or lion, etc).

As Alex and I were walking over to the elephants, I was reminding Alex to repeat over and over in his head “don’t run” because he seemed a little unnerved by remembering. Ha, would I (emphasis added) eat those words.

As we got closer to the elephants, Jackson noted there was a calf among them, and we had to be extra careful as elephants are much more dangerous when protecting the young. Jackson took us close, and then closer, and then well, too close. We found ourselves surrounded by the elephants, as they were making a large figure 6 around our area and we were in the center of that bottom circle.

So we changed direction and tried to cut across without disruption, when out of nowhere, hidden from our view by trees, was this 4-ton elephant. He was maybe 20 or 30 meters away, and he heard us. The rest is a bit of a blur…. the elephant trumpeted at us, a noise that would impress the likes of chuck Yeager. It sent shivers down my whole body. He flared out his ears and assumed the charging position. And then I looked at Jackson for some calm, and instead, there was my tour guide with a look of complete and utter panic.

I started to run backwards, ignoring all my advice to Alex just fifteen minutes earlier. Luckily, Alex was behind me and grabbed me, and the 3 of us walked very slowly backwards to “safety”… safe from this elephant but still surrounded by the others. I was completely in shock, my body was shaking and I was crying a little. But I had no choice but to keep going to find an open field of safety. Luckily we made our way to one. The rest of the safari was also blur…. I held onto to both Alex and Jackson for dear life, and prayed that we would only see passive herbivores.

After what felt like days, we made our way back to the mokoro and through the hippo/croc waters to safety. I’m still a little scarred by it all.

Anyway, a FOUR SEATER Cessna trip out of the delta and some time on our bus left us in Livingstone Zambia, at the border of Zimbabwe and the home of Victoria falls. The falls were amazing… I watched others bungee off the falls (3rd highest bungee in the world) and realized that there was no chance in hell I could do it. We then all went white water rafting down the Zambezi River. Most of you don’t know this, but there is a group of my friends I’m close with in NYC who I refer to as the “Montreal girls”, because we all became close after a weekend of white-water rafting on some serious rapids in Montreal. We never got tossed on that trip, so when I saw that these rapids were slightly less rough, I wasn’t too concerned. HA! Just as Rudyard Kipling says the strength of the wolf is the pack, the strength of the raft is its passengers. And our boat was slightly unbalanced, 3 of us hardcore rowers on one side, and only one on the other. It was really only a matter of time and physics for us.

We hit one rapid, 2 rowers stopped rowing, so we started to turn in towards my side. Of course, I only know this now, because at the time I was rowing one second, and the next second I was trapped under water with the boat on top of me. They tell you if that happens, to use your hands and follow the boat to one side, which is easier than it sounds when you haven’t taken a deep breath before you go under and when you’re in the middle of a class 4 rapid. I did make my way to one side finally, and hung onto the boat as we tossed through the rapid. I was pulled back on, coughing out water, and noticed that both Alex and my one of my sandals were missing. Alex got tossed as well, and both he and my sandal went sailing through the rapids. Alex was saved by another raft, and ironically, my sandal was saved by one of the kayakers. So here are to you, Montreal girls, for being more hardcore than we really knew.

After the trip, I spent a few more days in Livingstone, and then made my way through South Africa, on 3 different flights to Kilimanjaro airport, where my tour guide to begin safari #2 met me.

Safari #2: Tanzania: Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I set out on this safari. There were only 3 of us… me, this guy Luke I became friends with in South Africa and took Jodi’s spot on the trip, and Nancy, a 59 yr old women from Maryland. We were going to spend 5 days in the Serengeti and 2 days in Ngorongoro crater, half camping and half lodges. The campsite we arrived at on day 1 made our last campsite look like a Ritz Carlton…. this was the real deal.

We pitched our very basic tents; tossed our sleeping bags in them, and made our way around in our safari truck…. the place I’d spend more time in over the next week than anywhere else. The land cruiser was our best friend, enough room for us to be relatively comfortable in the back (standing with our heads out the top) and Shaniel (our guide) and our cook in the front.

The 5 days in the Serengeti were all quite similar: we got up very early, drove for 5 or 6 hours through the game parks, ate lunch, drove for another 4 hours or so through more parks and went to bed (note: when we were camping we couldn’t leave the tent at night to use the bathrooms, as lions and hyenas were in our campsite…. right outside our tents) each day we saw things that outdid the prior day’s wonders.

Too much to recap on a daily basis, here are the highlights of my personal national geographic memoirs:

  • watching a few lion cubs stalk and chase down a gazelle. The gazelle got away
  • being surrounded by 4 or 5 giraffes not more than a few meters away from our car
  • having a herd of elephants walk right past your car and being so close you can hear the sounds from their chewing
  • seeing troops of baboons scattered in the road
  • watching the mating dance of ostriches. And then consummation
  • seeing a leopard in a nearby tree
  • watching a cheetah eat his recently killed prey, and then the vultures arrive one by one until enough of them arrived to attack the cheetah and chase him away
  • watching day 1 of the lion mating cycle, where the lions mate every 10 minutes all day. We watched for a few times and then even we were exhausted
  • part of the migration of the wildebeest and zebras (most were already in Kenya when I arrived) hundreds of gazelles and waterbuck on the games
  • African buffalos (the most dangerous animal) meters from our car

It was simply amazing.

During the last two days we made it to Ngorongoro crater, home to some remaining 14 black rhinos. At this point, I had seen four of the “big five” (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard) and wanted to see a rhino to complete the pack. In addition, I had one wish for the trip: to watch a kill.

Surprised by my own bloodthirstiness, I wanted to see the action. I was lucky enough to witness the stalking and attempt by lions, and the feeding by a cheetah, but missed the act of the actual kill. My tour guide had reminded me that it’s quite rare to see, and that our group was one of the luckiest he has ever had…. seeing things that other groups would be lucky to see half of. So as our luck would have it, not 30 minutes into our crater drive, we came upon a black rhino and its calf. This is one of the rarest sites to be seen, as there are only 14 black rhinos left in the crater.

But there they were, making their way across the land and walking on the road in front of us. Amazing. So after that, we drove around and started to make our way out of the crater and back to Arusha to end the safari. And just as we were leaving, our guide spotted two cheetahs together (as a solitary animal, this alone was rare)… but in the distance we saw three gazelles making their way down. I must say that the next 15 minutes rank among the best in my life. T

he cheetahs spread out, the gazelles started running, and one cheetah came behind them as the other made a perpendicular dash for the gazelles. The cheetah overshot the gazelles, and the gazelles made a right turn away from the cheetah. And then it happened. The cheetah turned around and took off. Watching the fastest animal in the world on a chase is breathtaking.

I’ve never seen any living thing move that fast. He closed the gap with those gazelles faster than I could press the buttons on my camera. The distance between them vanished in seconds and the cheetah caught the last gazelle. And there it was, I had my kill. And as a bonus I got to see the Porsche of animals go for a run. Just perfect.

Zanzibar: a needed rest on the beach

After all the excitement from the prior 3 weeks, I was looking forward to some R&R on the beaches of Zanzibar.

Alex, the Irish guy from the first safari, was joining me and we were planning on some adrenaline free downtime. And for the most part, that’s what we got. Except on day 2, some mosquitoes sitting on our terrace attacked us.

My bites (of course) blew up and kept getting bigger and bigger and redder and redder. My toes were now twice the size they once were, and the bites were the size of half dollars. I then started to break out in this odd rash across my body, so Alex called a doctor.

The doctor said I was having a semi-allergic reaction to the bites, and the rash had something to do with histamines and the reaction… I mean, I couldn’t even listen because what is with it with bug and me bites. Anyway, he gave me some creams and some strong antihistamine, and I suffered for a few more days and finally got better. As I was getting better and vegging on the beach, I started to focus on what I was going to do in September.

I had decided last month not to accompany Jodi and her friend on the trans-Siberian railway, but instead to travel to India. So I went to the Indian embassy in Zanzibar looking for a visa. From the research I’ve done, the visa is easy to get and takes only a few days. Well, not so much. It turns out that even though I’m in Tanzania applying in the Indian embassy to go to India, the US needs to give permission to the embassy to issue the visa. Since Alex had applied with me as well, the consulate’s assistant told us to call the Indian embassies in our respective home countries and ask them to approve the request.

Ireland was no problem…. he called, they checked, and the next day his visa was approved. The US is an entirely different story. There are about 40 numbers to call, and as the Indian embassy has outsourced the visa process to a 3rd party, so I had 40 more numbers as well. I couldn’t get a hold of a live person for the life of me. And time was running out. Sure enough, on my last weekday in Tanzania I still didn’t have my visa.

So I started to work the phones… I called the Indian embassies in Egypt, Israel and United Arab Emirates (the next 3 places I was going with embassies) and each one told me I’d need to wait 3 weeks to get the visa. Which is a problem, because I’m not going to be in any of those countries for 3 weeks. So as it stands today, September is still unknown for me. I’m considering going from Dubai to Nairobi, where the embassy told me it would take a week or so to process and I never got to see Kenya while in Africa. Or I’m considering flying back to the US, seeing my friends and family, and applying there. We shall see.

That concludes the not-so-short recap of my past month. I subsequently left Zanzibar for Cairo, by way of an all nighter in the Nairobi airport (where I had to cry to a customs agent to let me back into the airport, so I could have the pleasure of sleeping in the airport all night). I’m leaving Cairo tomorrow for Israel, where I meet up with Jana, visiting me from NYC. Hopefully I will be better about blogging, and will recap my Middle East adventures soon.

-Jess