Sunday, September 11, 2005

Botswana: Arrival

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By Air from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Maun

We awake to a beautiful morning, but I am having a hard time enjoying it. We have checked out and now there is nothing to do but wait. K and her husband are enjoying a leisurely breakfast. I would have done so as well, but there is a mix-up with the shuttle. Now that K has told us of the change, we don't have time for breakfast ourselves. I try to write in my journal, but am hungry, tired, and crabby. There is a lovely little courtyard visible from where we wait and my spouse spends time there watching the birds, calling me over when he sees one that is particularly interesting.

At the Johannesburg airport, the group in line ahead of us at the check-in counter is all atwitter. "Gloria Steinem is on our flight!" This could be true, but I can't tell whether the handsome older woman checking in ahead of us is Ms Steinem or not. (Celebrity watching isn't my thing.) However, I would like to think that she is the sort of woman who goes to Africa on vacation, so I decide to believe it is her.

We are taking Air Botswana to Maun, where we will meet our guide and begin our safari. There is no designated gate for the flight, just a doorway where everyone lines up when it is time to board the bus that will take us across the tarmac to our plane. The waiting area is small and crowded. The breakfast options are bleak, however, the woman running the snack stand is friendly and helpful. She gives me a sample of melon juice and when I order some she accepts my American dollars as payment and returns a few rand in change. The juice is sweet and filling.

I do not have a window seat. I'm unable to catch even a glimpse of the land below us, so I take out my knitting and work for awhile, trying not to be glum. They feed us breakfast, which I hadn't expected and which makes me glad I hadn't eaten earlier. After eating I chat a bit with the woman sitting next to me. She turns out to work for a zoo in California where she raised the polar bears that now live in my hometown zoo. I wonder if this is a sign of how small the world is or of nothing at all.

Maun has a large modern airport, but the immigration area is very crowded, with too few agents processing the crowd of tourists from our flight. It is slow and frustrating. There is no line. When the agent handling residents finishes, that counter is closed and the agent disappears, leaving us still waiting in a bunched up crowd.

As we wait, a determined young Asian woman works her way from the very back of the crowd, past us, and almost to the front of the line. (The couple ahead of us - who had pushed past us earlier - defeat even her determined effort to get to the front of the crowd.) Later we see her waiting alone while the rest of her group still stands towards the back of the crowd waiting to get through. Generally I think of myself as a bit pushy, so I am rather amazed to see how completely I am out-ranked in this crowd.

Soon we are headed into the hot sun to begin our safari. Our guide is a cheerful local resident named Kaiser (pronounced Kaisa). As he directs us to the open safari truck - an extended frame Toyota Land Cruiser, Irealize that we will be using the same vehicle for both the long highway trips between parks and game viewing. The truck has a canvas roof stretched over the top, but the windshield is sufficient only to protect the driver and front seat passenger. I suspect I am not alone in being taken aback by this arrangement.

K, her mother, and I climb up into the back seat. K and family have a fair number of larger bags, many of which end up on the floor at our feet. This works well, as the seat is so high that our feet don't otherwise touch the floor. There are padded bench seats, but no seatbelts. Despite the fact that I work in the transportation field, where seatbelt use is a sacred act, the lack of seatbelts doesn't even register on this first foray.

On Our Way

On the highway, the open vehicle doesn't feel dangerous - but it IS windy. Neither K's mother nor I are prepared for the wind, as I quickly discover my wide brimmed sun hat is useless at highway speed. (By the time we arrive at our campsite about 8 hours later, my hair will be so matted from the wind that I fear for awhile that I will have to cut it off.) At least I have wrap-around sunglasses. My husband is more uncomfortable. While he is able to keep his baseball cap on most of the time, the large round lenses on his sunglasses do little to protect him from the wind and dust.

Despite the wind, I enjoy seeing the country all around me.

As we leave Maun, the houses and shops give way to sandy woodlands and open patches of sand and scrub. The vegetation consists mostly of shrubs and a scattered trees. There is almost no grass here and many of the shrubs and trees are without leaves. But still the colors are beautiful, with a combination of leaves, seed pods, and blossoms turning some trees green, some golden, some red, brown, white, or silvery lavender.

Set back away from the road we see groupings of rondevals with thatch roofs and reed kraals, all surrounded by wood and wire fences. Occasionally we see people sitting by their homes or, more commonly, by the road, waiting for a ride by bus or any other vehicle that may come along. Usually they wave to us, some simply in greeting, others clearly hoping for a ride.

The only wildlife we see from the road is a tree filled with vultures awaiting their turn at the fresh carcass of a donkey.

The road here is smooth and well maintained. This is a main highway out of Maun, but there are few other vehicles out at mid-day. Herds of goats graze beside the road, moving away quickly when a horn honks - unlike the occasional donkey or cow, which seem oblivious to vehicles bearing down on them.

At some point along the way I think I see a sign post marking the turn-off to Xade, where a large bushman community was once located. I wonder if we will go there, as our itinerary promises:
Your first three nights will be spent in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where you will have the opportunity to meet the San / Bushman from the local villages learning about their customs and culture. You may spend your time with a San guide learning the ways of the Bushman and their survival techniques and everyday skills of dealing with their environment. You will also be witness to the dramatic changes in their culture as civilization has encroached on their habitat and forced itself of the people. No longer do they walk around in skins of animals but in street clothes, however their culture has remained strong.
This is the part of the trip I am most excited about. A friend worked with the bushmen years ago and his letters left me with a lingering curiosity about these people and their ancient culture. I am thrilled to finally have a chance to meet and learn about them firsthand. However, despite several requests to the tour agent, I've been unable to find out exactly which village we will visit, so I watch the signs intently, searching for clues.

Botswana has struggled with it's treatment of its bushmen (also known as the San or Basarwa). The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established in 1961 so the bushmen could continue their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering. In order to protect the this way of life, the reserve remained largely closed for 30 years.

In a country with a strict policy against discrimination of any type, creating special protections for the bushmen has been problematic and controversial. When the park was established, it has been estimated that up to 5,000 people lived within it's boundaries. By the mid-90s, that number had probably fallen to less than 1,500, with most living near the village of Xade. Since that time much of the population has moved or been moved outside the reserve. Meanwhile, the government appears to be actively promoting both tourism and diamond prospecting within the boundaries of the reserve.

Racism toward the bushmen is common enough to be obvious to a casual traveler like me. While the truth about the treatment of the bushmen lies somewhere between Survival International's allegations of genocide and the Botswana government's claims of well-intentioned helpfulness, it seems clear that the culture of Botswana's bushmen is greatly endangered.

(See writer and photographer Tony Weaver for a first-hand account.)

After at least an hour on the main road between Maun and Francistown, we reach an agricultural check station and turn onto a sand track that runs along the east side of a veterinary fence. Botswana is cut by a series of veterinarian fences, the first of which was erected in 1954 to prevent, or at least contain, outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. (Another policy which has been controversial.)

We move more slowly here and can better see the landscape around us. To our immediate right runs the fence, with generally barren land behind it. To the left is a nearly steady line of thick brush. We occasionally see birds in the brush by the roadside and a few cows off in the distance, but otherwise the landscape seems flat, dry, and empty.

Our progress is briefly brought to a halt by what turns out to be the first of several flat tires.

Entering the Central Kalahari Game Reserve
It is late afternoon when we reach the Matswere entrance, where we are greeted by a raucous pair of yellow-billed hornbills.

We travel quite a ways into the park without seeing much game, but that begins to change as the afternoon turns into evening.

Everything is new to us. The pair of female kudu in the road ahead are awesome. A magnificent lone gemsbok (oryx) stands regally, watching as we pass by. Springbok and tiny steenbok scatter from the roadside as we drive by. Solitary black backed jackals roam everywhere.

Kori bustards maintain a studied pace as they walk across the open landscape, not startled enough by our approach to lumber into the air.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the birds we meet are the white-quilled korhaans. They are everywhere and they are LOUD. The males are lovely, a flash of bold black and white as they flush beside our vehicle. Both males and females abandon their roadside retreats with a noisy "karak, karak, karak." We never see one flush without hearing this call, which seems to increase in speed and urgency in time with the beating of their wings and as they take flight.

We are still driving as the sun sets.

Kaiser checks the few roadside signs, turns and retraces our path and then turns toward the lights of a campsite. He hesitates when he sees a small camper set up there, but then stops and compares notes with the couple staying there. Soon we continue on in the darkness.

We begin to wonder if Kaiser is lost. It is cold now and the truck has become very uncomfortable. A bathroom and a warm bed sound wonderful, but seem a long way off.

Despite the discomfort, the glimpses of nocturnal wildlife are fascinating. Kaiser points out bat-eared foxes and the glittering eyes of a wild cat. Jackals slide away from the beam of the headlights.

A pair of honey badgers decide to escape our vehicle by running ahead of us in the sandy rut of the road. Kaiser slows down, honks, and turns the lights off and on again. He is clearly exasperated, but we all laugh and cheer, encouraging the pair to run to the side and make their escape. They must be tired, but keep running in the roadway. We chase them in slow motion for some time before they slip off to the side and disappear.

At Camp
At last we again see lights in the distance. I am hoping for a village, a bathroom, and a warm bed. Instead, we join another safari vehicle, a small group of tents set under leafless trees, and a bright lantern hanging above a table set for dinner. Tiki torches glow in front of each tent and along a path that leads behind the tents. It is both festive and bleak at the same time.

We are welcomed immediately. Besides our guide, there is a cook, a driver for the supply vehicle, and a camp helper. They formally introduce themselves to us, but I much more interested in locating the toilet.

My husband and I choose the middle tent and I go inside to find a spot for our bags. There are two bedrolls, each made up with a sheet and blanket, aligned along the wall to either side. This is not what we are expecting. Where are the cabin-style tents with cots that K promised?

We sit at the table and wait while dinner is prepared. We are too tired to talk, but it becomes clear that K is surprised by the isolation of our campsite. We have not seen any sign of a village since we left the paved road. . . where are the bushmen we came here to visit?

Dinner is a Batswana take on American home cooking which
will characterize all of our dinners during the trip. Kaiser joins us for dinner while the others stay near the fire. All cooking is done over this open campfire. Over the course of the trip our cook (OT) will continue to amaze us with what he can do over that fire. Tonight's meal is excellent and I only regret that they have not stocked a good South African wine to serve alongside.

After dinner we began asking questions: What is the plan for tomorrow?

We'll do a game drive in the morning.

What time will we visit the San?

The San? There are no people here, only the animals. We are far from any village.

Our itinerary says we will visit the San. When will we do that?

You don't want to go there. It's not nice. . . He realizes his error immediately. Going there is not allowed because of the animal disease. It is closed.

You mean there is a quarantine?

Yes. A quarantine. No one can go there.

My husband and I suspect simple prejudice, but even if that is the case, there isn't much we can do about it now. While it is possible the area is under quarantine, if that is true, why didn't our tour company tell us so we could adjust our itinerary? We didn't come to the Kalahari for the game, we came to visit and learn about the San. We also hoped that our visit would play a small part in contributing to the survival of their community and culture.

I am very uncomfortable with the situation we find ourselves in and wonder what this portends for the rest of the trip. Is this an aberration or a sign of things to come?

But we are tired and there really is nothing more we can do tonight. We clean up as best we can and get ready for bed. As I sit on the open-air toilet seat (perched above a hole in the sand), I scan the surrounding scrub with my flashlight. A jackal slinks away from the beam.

In the tent, I cry myself to sleep while the staff talk and laugh by the fire. But the bedding is uncomfortable and I sleep fitfully, waking with every odd sound. A jackal paws at the tent for a bit, waking me and reminding me of some other reasons why I did not want to be sleeping in a tent in Africa.

Next Post: In the Kalahari

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