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African Winter: The Tourism Dimension

What are the mainstays — and surprises — of a trip through the African wilderness?

August 22, 2005

What are the mainstays — and surprises — of a trip through the African wilderness?

Maun Airport is small, but for its size the busiest in Africa. Small planes fly to safari camps. In Tswana, the language of Botswana, “Baba Tswango Sele” stands for “International Arrivals.”

The endless green expanse of land is punctuated by yellow and gray teepees, termite hills which come in many shapes — Burmese pagodas, gigantic carrots, pock-marked Angkor Wat temples leaning against dying trees, neolithic knives pointed upward. At sunset, some look like medieval monks meditating.

Five blue fingers on the map represent the Okavango Delta. Born far away in Angola and vanishing in the Kalahari Desert, it is the world's only landlocked delta. As the fingers cross the desert, their waters are filtered by sand and become clean enough for human consumption.

Jee Jee, our tour guide, meets the plane at the wheel of a tractor-trailer: a blue tractor hitched to a screened porch mounted on wheels, in which we putter our way to the camp.

The next day, tucked in dug-out canoes, we glide over an African version of the magical Lake Titicaca — winding among the reeds, enjoying a cool scented breeze and gentle violet ripples. One-inch frogs cling to reeds, eyes shining. Silence, except for occasional birds chirping Morse signals.

Most baboons, Jee Jee explains, are left-handed. Crocodiles open their jaws more or less widely to regulate their temperature. A pod of hippos grunts nearby, their little eyes looking at us disapprovingly.

We learn about lion prides, zebra stripes, giraffe journeys, eagle convocations, hyena cackles, pheasant bouquets, ape shrewdness, parrot pandemonium, buzzard wakes.

Having risen at six, we trek until 11, brunch, nap, trek again until sunset. Honeymooners predominate among the guests. A Spanish armada of middle-aged tourists from Valencia is flown in — they don’t seem to know quite where they are.

One lady asks for fine nearby restaurants, another wonders where the shops are. Our guide speaks in a very loud voice. It turns out that he had spent the previous days escorting elderly and very deaf German tourists.

Another guide, clutching the jeep’s steering wheel with one hand, examines the dusty tracks below, looking for traces. We are holding our breath. Might he find a lion? A panther? “It is the Land Rover!” he exclaims cheerfully, and drives on.

Savute Channel in the Chobe National Park used to be a river, which dried up in 1982 as a result of a tectonic shift. It became an “elephant highway.” One hundred and twenty thousand elephants live in the Chobe reserve.

Padding slowly in the moonlight, one after another they tread silently on the dusty riverbed, to and fro, to and fro, to quench their thirst at a man-made water hole. Some fall asleep, leaning on sandy “elephant pillows” dug into the banks.

A pride of 21 lions lives nearby. Some feet away, cubs are moving forward cautiously, their mothers trying to keep them back. A large cobra, erect and hissing, is fighting for its life. One of the cubs is bitten. The lions retreat.

Next morning, we stop by another water hole. A lone lioness roars. Where is her pride? She roars again. A couple of cubs race toward her — kicking up dust, leaping on their mother, lavishing effusive hugs.

After drinking, they look for shady places and very soon fall asleep. Later, the lioness gets up and roars, and eventually they trot away, single file. The cub injured by the cobra survived but lags behind. Male lions are quite useless — they sleep all day.

Namibian desert lions have developed a taste for tires. They enjoy chewing on these soft car parts, leaving tourists stranded overnight.

Tourism is Cape Town's main industry. “Topless Tours” are being advertised. This, it turns out, thankfully refers to roofless buses.

At one of the larger jewelry outlets, husbands are shunted to a bar, far from their shopping wives. Here they are offered coffee, tea and soft drinks, while waiting like fathers-to-be in a maternity ward for their wives’ negotiations to conclude. Quite a few anxious husbands ask whether they might be served stronger drinks.

Cape Town’s surroundings are among the marvels of the world. The road to the Cape of Good Hope is cut into the side of near-vertical cliffs, with surf churning below. Trapped in a cloud on top of Table Mountain, we wonder at the floral variety — 1,285 species found nowhere else in the world.

Plump brown creatures, dassies, nibble on shrubs. All of a sudden a shaft of light — and we see huge dragon-shaped mountains dropping into the surf. A rainbow, and the clouds close in again.

In 1983, a pair of small penguins was spotted near Simon’s Town — Cape Town's naval base. In 1985, they began to lay, and more immigrated. Today, over 2,500 live in Boulders Colony.

A mother sits in a burrow, protecting her eggs. Another averts her head from greedy chicks that are trying to poke their bills down her throat. A father waddles up the sandy slope to fetch twigs, returns to deposit them near his spouse, and then waddles up again — up and down, up and down.

Our plane out of Cape Town starts out on its 11-hour journey to Europe. The captain offers a sightseeing tour, circling several times over the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. The blood-red sun shines into the cabin.