The Animal Issue (Part II)

THE BIG DIAMOND

In November last year, the world’s second-largest gem quality diamond was discovered in Botswana. Weighing more than 1,100 karats, it is the biggest diamond to be discovered in Botswana and the largest find in more than a century. The size of a baseball, the gem is too large for the onsite equipment in Botswana. It has been sent to Antwerp for scanning and valuation.

THE FIVES

In addition to big diamonds, Botswana is also home to big mammals. The Mashatu Lodge Rangers that picked us up at the airfield brought us to a beautiful lodge in the middle of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. According to Wiki, the “Reserve is a private reserve covering an area of 46,000 hectares (110,000 acres) made up of savannah plains, riverine forests, open marshland and rugged outcrops of sandstone. It is the largest private reserve in Southern Africa. It has the largest elephant population in the world. In addition, more than 350 species of birds have been reported here”.

We spent about 12 hours in safari trucks viewing the animals at different times of the day. We saw two sister lionesses hunting at night and then one of them sleeping it off the following morning (pictured below). We heard the male lion roar at sundown, after seeing it resting beside its warthog kill the previous day. We giggled every time we saw the warthogs, busybodies scurrying through the bush with their tails raised like antennae.

In Africa, the “Big Five” game animals are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros. Three of the five are present at Tuli (there are no buffalo or rhinos).

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There is also the “Ugly Five”, consisting of the Hyena, Marabou stork, Vulture, Warthog and Wildebeest.

Here’s John’s shot of a wildebeest.
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We had our own “Cute Five Six” that took great pleasure in seeing all the animals and checking them off in the lists of animal sightings in the kids workbooks that Mashatu staff thoughtfully provided.

Here’s the gang.

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THE THEFT

Our family has been traveling for more than seven months, in Asia and Southern Africa. We know that we’ve been high value targets for thieves in places like Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Saigon, Indian trains, Jaipur and Delhi and Cape Town. Our stuff- small knapsacks, money, cameras, tablets, phones and credit cards – attracts furtive, covetous glances on buses, in restaurants, on the street.  We take some precautions; in November, I had passport-sized pockets sewn into all of my shorts and, aside from border crossings, I haven’t taken our passports out of those pockets for five months. My thinking has been that we could easily part with most things; losing the passports would be more complicated and time-consuming to resolve than other thefts. Somehow we managed to not lose a thing before coming to Botswana.

At about noon on Friday, the Mashatu Rangers dropped us off at the local airfield. We got into our trucks to drive home to Gabstown, in what turned out to be an eight-hour journey. I drove the final three-hour stretch, mostly in the dark, with Louise, Lotte, Ida and Saga. We stopped in a shopping mall near the Gaborone airport to pick up a few groceries and Indian take-away while the others continued home. While we were getting the food, someone broke into our car and took Saga’s tablet and Louise’s knapsack containing a book and a couple of pairs of sunglasses. They also got my camera bag with my camera and all the photographs I’d shot on the trip.

There is a  gap in time between when we recognize that our stuff has been stolen and when we actually understand that our gear has disappeared. During those few seconds of disbelief, time stretches out, interminably. All the sounds around us fade into the background. Incredulous, we run through different scenarios: our stuff is under a carseat, left in the restaurant, the knapsack/ camera bag is actually still on our back. Finally, reality sinks in. It’s gone.

From Saga’s perspective, the biggest loss was her tablet. It has been with her through thick and thin all along; she’s a voracious reader and learner. Plus, in her words: “It’s the best tablet ever”. Louise was 500 pages into A Little Life, one of the finalists for this year’s Man Booker Prize; 200 pages to go in a riveting book. Prescription sunglasses are handy to have. The camera is a Fujifilm x100t, a Leica without the Leica pricetag, a good balance of quality and portability for a trip like this.

But the pictures were by far the most valuable: over 3,000 shots from our trip documenting all the places, people, and things that we’ve experienced. Since the beginning of this trip, Louise and I have sorted our shots every couple of days, selecting the ones we like the most, saving them to a phone or IPad or loading onto WordPress. We have more than 700 of the best shots from our adventures. It could be a lot worse.

Things went back to normal quickly. Saga and Ida’s birthsday was on Monday. Their Toronto grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins gave them each a new tablet. Lotte spent the day in Johannesburg yesterday and picked up A Little Life for Louise. Meanwhile, I’m spared the job of having to edit 3,000 photographs that I’ve already sorted and having to decide what to do with them and where to store them. As for the camera, I bought it for the trip and it made it through almost to the end. We’ll be back in Toronto next Thursday.

This morning, the girls joined Viggo’s class for the day. All the kids went to school together. They had a blast . Here’s a shot (from my phone) before they left.

  

The Animal Issue (Part I)

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the world’s driest and in some areas it receives only a few hundredths of an inch of rain per year.The massive banks of sea fog known as the camanchacas that roll off the Pacific Ocean do not produce rain – the moisture that makes up the fog is too fine to form rain droplets. To sustain itself, an indigenous wild relative of the llama, known as the guanaco, very delicately drinks the condensed fog from the spines of cacti that grow nearby. It’s an incredible act of tenacity and survival.

We’re in Botswana, a landlocked country with an arid or semi-arid climate. Up to 70% of its area is covered by the Kalahari desert. Last week we left for a six-day camping and safari trip in Botswana’s wilds. I wondered how thirsty we would get.

Botswana’s tourism is geared to meeting the needs of luxury safari enthusiasts. There are myriad lavish Bostwanan safari lodges that cater to every client need, providing not only access to wildlife sightings (the Big Five, the Little Five, the Ugly Five), but also delicious food, comfortable sleeping accommodations, air transport to and from lodges and much more.

We were going camping, however, and there’s not an infrastructure in place to support a camping culture. Renting 4×4 trucks is difficult. Hiring camping gear is nonviable. Maps and guidebooks for where to camp and how to get there are hard to come by and people generally rely on word of mouth recommendations. If someone visiting Botswana wants to put together his or her own camping trip, it’s nearly impossible.

Impossible, that is, unless you are lucky enough to go to the wilds with Lotte and John. They have gear of their own and could count on their friends to lend us the rest of the gear that we needed.

Sleeping bags, therma-rests,  camp stoves, ground sheets. 

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Tent (red bag) and cooking gear (IKEA bag [of course]).

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Chairs for around the fire.

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Jerrycans full of diesel.

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Back in January we had looked into a local car rental place that could set us up with a 4×4. By the time we’d arrived in Botswana the truck we wanted had evaporated and, since we wished to camp over Easter weekend, there were no 4x4s available from any of the other rental agencies. At the eleventh hour Lotte was able to magic us an Isuzu pickup. We loaded it up and were on our way. (More on our Isuzu ride in the next post.)

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Our itinerary consisted of two nights at a campground in Goo Moremi Gorge, about 5 hours drive from Gaborone. The following two nights were at a campground on the Limpopo River. The final two nights would be at the Mashatu Lodge, in Northern Tuli Block, at a game reserve.

I was happy to learn that camping in Botswana isn’t much different from camping in Southern Ontario. An impala can double as a deer. Warthogs are a cross between porcupines, skunks, toads and feral pigs.  With a bit of imagination, a scorpion coud be a big wasp. It gets hot, especially at 1pm. And surprisingly, there’s a lot of water. The Limpopo River was high and at our second campground water was drawn from the river to irrigate a massive orange grove. No need to lick condensed fog from cacti.

We saw some of rural Botswana. The country is about 15% larger than Spain, but with a population of about 2 million, it has one of the lowest population densities in the world. The combination of dry red soil and low rainfall means that the land isn’t suitable for cultivation and Botswana imports much of its food. Agriculture consists mainly of livestock rearing (mostly cattle, as well as some goats, sheep and chicken) and accounts for around a tenth of Botswana’s gross national product. In fact, we learned that most families have a “cattle post”, meaning a small herd of livestock. Most of the cattle seemed to spend the day chewing grass on the side of the highway, occasionally wandering into traffic.

The camping was fun. We hiked through the Goo Moremi Gorge and visited waterfalls and vulture breeding grounds. We learned that the Baobab tree is actually a succulent; the one we saw at the foot of the gorge was more than 800 years old. As we packed up our camp on the third day, Louise uncovered a scorpion. In Botswana there are two kinds of scorpions: ones with big claws and small tails, others with small claws and big tails that are more poisonous. Louise’s scorpion had tiny claws.

Our campgrounds were far from any town or village. The sky was clear and the stars so bright that they seemed almost to create a caricature of a night sky.

Our food was good and there was a lot of it. On our fifth day we packed up our second campsite and drove into the northern Tuli Block game reserve. We left our cars at the airfield, Mashatu Lodge rangers picked us up at 1pm and took us to the lodge. I’ll write more about that in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s a shot of an elephant from the game reserve.

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Gaborone Dispatch

Botswana is a country in Southern Africa. It borders South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe and is home to just over 2 million people. The Tswana make up the majority ethnic group in the country, with 79% of the population. A citizen of Botswana is a “Matswana”. Two or more citizens are referred to as “Batswana”. The language spoken by the majority is “Setswana”. Botswana gained independence from Britain in 1966 (it was formerly known as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland). Gaborone is the capital of Botswana and is the largest city with a population about 250,000.  

Louise’s sister, Lotte, lives in Gaborone with her husband John and their four kids between 2 years and 11 years of age. John has a four-year posting at the EU Delegation in Botswana. The family has been in-country for a year and a half.  

When we set out on our trip we knew that we wanted to start it in Cambodia. We flew to Asia on a one-way ticket to Cambodia and made up the rest of the trip and its itinerary as we went along. But we also knew we wanted to visit John, Lotte and family at the end of our travels. On Friday we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg and from there took a bus to Gaborone.  It was an easy trip and in addition to seeing the South African rural landscape we also spotted elephants, zebras and ostriches.

Visiting family is great. And staying with Lotte and John, in Southern Africa, as we’re winding up an eight-month trip through Asia and Africa, is perfect. They are wonderful hosts. We even arrived to “Where’s Waldo” welcome cards for us that were signed by their kids.

Saga and Ida are in heaven. They haven’t had as much contact as they’re used to with kids their own age during our trip. Here, not only do they have kids their own age around all the time, those kids also happen to be their cousins. There’s a lot of space to play; a pool, trampoline, games. The cousins’ school is a block away and it also looms large here. On Saturday the school hosted a big Earth Hour event. Sunday afternoon the school hosted a “Dads and Lads (and Lasses)” football game. We were back on Monday when the girls joined their cousins for a French class. 
 

Small to tall: Zoe, Rasmus, Ida, Saga, Viggo and Ellen.
 

And it even gets better. This afternoon, the girls’ grandparents arrive from Denmark. Jens and Perle will stay in Gaborone for about a month. On Saturday we’ll all go on a safari in Tuli Block.

We’re shocked and saddened by the explosions in Brussels today. Our hearts ache for Brussels’ families. We watch and listen with horror as the details trickle in. The explosions took place within sight of Lotte’s old office window. The senselessness of the loss is breathtaking, again, just as it was after the Paris attacks in November. It’s a dark day and we’ll hold each other more closely this afternoon and tonight, thankful to be with family.