Johannesburg to Makgadikgadi - Sunday 23rd September 2018 - Day 6
We sleep well in that beautiful castle and I have a long bath before breakfast. I sort out gifts and a few clothes to leave with Lucia, it turned cold yesterday and she hadn’t brought a cardigan, so I insisted she wear something warm of mine. She needs it more than me, and is delighted when I give her my padded jacket. Cindy has laid out breakfast of fruit and yogurt and toast, with her usual artistic flair, and after we farewell Paul, she drives us to the airport through deserted Sunday morning streets, where we witness several people sailing through red traffic lights. It’s quick farewell. She too, does not want a long drawn out goodbye, but I weep as I watch her drive off, being strong and staring straight ahead so we don’t see her tears. I want to mother her so much.
Johannesburg Oliver Tambo Airport is a Zoo, from the front door to the entrance to our plane. There are long queues everywhere, it takes an hour to check in, there are security checks after security checks, which make no sense at all. It’s a complete shambles, people are milling around, it seems crazy that despite the high unemployment rate in the country, there is a major lack of staff with unmanned booths and hundreds of people waiting to board planes. In one long queue as we shuffle along interminably, I introduce myself to Chris, a miner en route Zambia (two weeks in and two weeks out) we commiserate about the chaos and share stories.
As often happens when one travels, we meet people only briefly, yet profoundly, and it gives us permission to open our hearts in a way we may consider too risky in our normal environment. I don’t even know how it came about, but within minutes, he tells me that several years ago, his only son, aged 32, committed suicide, and tears course freely down his cheeks. We stand for long moments and hug, this beat up, strong, gnarled man allows me to hold him tight, and I cry with him. The song says ‘we may never pass this way again’ and for now, I have the privilege of comforting this human being, for some reason, fate had us stand next to each other in a long queue in Johannesburg. When we finally part almost an hour later, we are holding hands, we are friends, we have shared something profound and our lives have altered somewhat.
Travel does that.
Our flight for Maun in Botswana departs at 10.25 am and we hope we find our way through the crowds in time. It is 1.5 hours long and somehow arrives 30 minutes early at 11.30 am and there is nobody to meet us. We wait for our guide - who turns out to be a man called KB. Unusually for Gerald, he says he doesn’t like the man, an opinion which changes over the next few days when we find out just what a great guy he is. But before we can drive to Makgadikgadi, we have to wait for Steffi and Georg from Germany, whose flight is delayed. Its a long hot three hour wait as we have no local cash to buy water, and credit cards cannot be used for small amounts of money. We store our luggage into the baking furnace of his vehicle, and I discover he has a cool box of water, which we gratefully accept.
Maun ‘International’ Airport is a bit of a stretch. It’s small, overcrowded, and hot, but the toilets work, and just across a narrow road are a few curio shops, which I spend an idle hour perusing. All the prices are in US dollars and wildly expensive. I am sure the craftsmen do not get these prices, and I buy nothing, but there are several Americans are queued up, buying baskets and wood carvings, and a couple of impossibly large items which I wonder how they will transport home, and whether the USA has the same strict restrictions on importing wood and basket ware.
I wander aimlessly about the airport, and strike up a conversation with a lady, Laura Topping from Atlanta, travelling with her husband. It’s their first time time in Africa, and they are so excited, although exhausted after a very long haul flight, and she complains about being in the same sweaty clothes for over 24 hours. I tell her, this is Africa, nobody will notice, and she laughs. We share a brief précis of our lives: where we live, our kids, what we do, and where we are going. I like her, she would be a lot of fun, I think and in another place and time we would be friends; but hey, we’re friends now! She comments on my penchant for the colour orange (evident to most folk) and says she is an Orange Girl too. When she discovers we are African born, Gerald and I are awarded celebrity status, and she introduces us to her husband John, and their American travelling companions, Sara and her husband, a handsome older black man, who talks non stop about his career and his recent retirement in a deadpan monotone, even as KB is calling us to depart. I have to put a rude stop to his conversation by holding up my hand and saying “Sorry! I HAVE to go!”
We finally depart from Maun about 2.30 pm with Steffi and Georg for the drive to Makgadikgadi (pro: ‘Muck-guddy-guddy’) and arrive hot and exhausted at our camp, Meno a Kwena, about two hours later. We are met by Matilda, who is married to TT the manager, and a group of staff who hand us cool towels and a welcome cold drink. I give her a quick rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” which has her rocking with laughter. I gaze around, and my heart skips a beat, for now we are truly “In Africa”. The camp sits on the bank of the Boteti River, which lazily eases by, everything is brown and dry, dusty and all the trees appear dead. The first thing I see is a man sitting in the lounge, which is open on three sides, alongside a globe of the world, inspecting a bird book and making notes on a pad. Our arrival distracts him, he looks peeved, and picks up his book and walks away. In front of this is the traditional ‘boma’ - a circle of safari chairs around an open fire - an open air wooden dining area and a living area, with squashy sofas and chairs, lots of maps, books, binoculars, a coffee and tea and water station, an outdoor bar, furnished with a huge carved wooden crocodile coffee table. We are given a gin and tonic and a beer which we drink like the parched people we are. We take an exploratory walk around the camp, there is a small suspiciously green pool and outdoor bar and some thatched structures, overlooking the river. I love it. Matilda gives us our ‘briefing’ - safety (never walk in the dark - a guide will take you back to your tent after dinner), its OK to brush your teeth with the water, but don’t drink glass fulls of it, times of meals, camp routine and game drive times. We are shown to our ‘tent’ - it’s the furthest from camp - something which fortunately occurred in most camps we stayed in as it’s the only way to get any exercise on safari. The tent is large, as big as two rooms, its a solid wooden structure with concrete floors and canvas walls, two beds, decorated in a pleasing African style, with both an indoor and outdoor bathroom, from which you can watch elephant on the river. Of if you prefer, you can sit on the toilet and watch elephant at the river. There is a deck overlooking the river, with a wide lounge, two chairs and a table. Its heaven, it’s very Merryn Streep, its very Out of Africa.
But there is no time to dally, at 5pm we leave for a walk with the San People, and we hurry back down the dusty track to the lodge. A crowd of traditionally dressed San People, are waiting to greet Steff, Georg, Gerald and I - one lady has a baby on her back. They are draped with colourful beads, and the men wear a sheath which covers their genitals, and a ‘thong’ which displays their taut bums. They are tiny people, incredibly slim and muscular, and their language is a series of impossible clicks and clucks. They shake our hands in the traditional way, saying what I think is their name, one after the other, which I try to repeat, much to their amusement. We spent an astonishing two hours with them, following them at a fast pace out of the camp, along well trodden pathways. A guide accompanies us, and he translates some of what they show us and tell us, about how they use the trees and bark and leaves as food and medicine, but they are such natural actors, such great performers, that it is not necessary for a lot to be translated. They tell amassing stories using sign language, and are incredibly funny, not only to us but to each other and they laugh uproariously at their own antics, they genuinely seem to enjoy this opportunity to share their culture and to entertain us. They demonstrate how to make fire in an instant, they sing and dance, the baby wails and protests at being carried, he wants to get down and play with the fire, the mother walks him to one side, exasperated. Even in the middle of the African bush, mothers and kids are all the same.
I hope to attach a short video to this, so you can see what I mean about their thespian skills!
See the video below or cut and paste this link ……..
Its a marvelous, insightful, very entertaining experience, but the highlight is a man who crouches in the red dust, and gently entices a 6 inch long yellow scorpion out of his hidey hole, which he places on his hand and holds it out for us to inspect. That deadly looking sting gives us all the creeps and we suck in our breath and recoil. And then, unbelievably, he ‘cools it down’ - by LAYING IT ON HIS TONGUE IN HIS MOUTH - see the photo below!
It’s a suitable crescendo to an amazing performance, and we reluctantly follow their shiny, muscular bottoms back to camp, where we shake hands and Steff and Gerald give the group a large tip from the four of us. See photo below ……
It’s a delight to stand and wash the dust and sweat off after a long day - was it only this morning we left Cindy at Johannesburg? We sit, as one does on safari, around the fire in the boma, and after a cold gin and a beer, we eat dinner at a long table next to the fire, which gives us barely enough light to see the food we eat, but it smells and tastes delicious. A young woman nervously announces what we are to eat: “For Fuhst Koss, we will be having butternut soup, for Sekkond Koss, we will be having a kingclip fish and many vegetabulls, and for Thed Koss, we will be having Malva pudding. Please serve yourseff. Leddies Fuhst.” Oh, this is soooooo wonderful!
We are seated across the table from an inspiring couple from Germany, who at 68 and 73, have travelled to more places on earth than anyone we have met, they’ve been to Africa seven times (twice already this year), and mention the names of countries I have never even heard of.
Earlier at the pool, we met Richard, a friendly articulate man who tells us he is part of a group of journalists here doing a story on safari camps in Africa - Natural Selections, about eight in the group. At dinner, I ‘identify’ two of their party as a possible source of irritation, a couple of women who constantly attempt to ‘one up’ each other in their travel stories about Paris and other sophisticated places in loud voices. I shall avoid them at all costs. These are not people I want to make a brief but profound moment with in my travels.
We’re tired, a castle this morning and The San People and a scorpion this evening. Our guide walks us back to our room, and we’re asleep by 10.30 pm. Happy!