The Last Leg, Reflections

May 20-21

(Note: there’s a post from yesterday called “A Final Lazy Day”.  Though it’s up on the website, I’m not sure followers were notified.  So, if you were not notified and want to see it, you can do that by clicking the “Previous” link at the top of this post.)

As we take what even for us is a very long trek back (34 hours from the time we leave our lodge in Malawi to landing in Chicago–small plane to Lilongwe, 2 1/2 hour flight to Joburg, on to Dulles, with a stop in Accra, Ghana and then fly to Chicago, where Carol and I will attend a wedding five hours after we land), it’s time for some reflections. Here’s one member of our party as we landed in Accra.

This trip was for and about Zoe. And, quite simply, we could not have hoped for a better trip.

Carol and I were in heaven, having this time alone with Zoe. She’s just, well, neat. I can even forgive her failure always to appreciate my offbeat insights, especially because there’s often a smile lurking beneath the eye rolling. She’s good company–curious, witty, self-possessed and very clever. She can hold her own in any irreverent banter, and she had ample opportunity to test that on the trip.  

For the most part, the three of us hung out together, but Carol and I each also managed some alone time with Zoe, which I know was special for both of us. And one never has to worry about Zoe in the company of contemporaries of ours, she’s charming and comfortable with them.

The trip was very well balanced, between safaris, Capetown and relaxation, and Zoe enjoyed all of it. We’ve just begun discussing the trip and Zoe, Carol and I all agreed on our ranking of the overall experiences we had in our four stops, the Sabi Sabi lodge in South Africa, Cape Town, Majete National Park in Malawi and our relaxing time on Lake Malawi. We ranked them one to four in the order above, which happened to be the order in which we experienced them, though we all liked each of the spots we visited. Of course, we have a whole lot more debriefing to do on the trip.

I think (and hope) that the trip was a great growth and mind-expanding experience for Zoe, and a wonderful introduction for her to the joys of travel. This was one of our principle goals, and I think it was fully achieved. Clearly, Zoe found the safari experience as magical as we do, which pleased us greatly. I was tickled that Zoe was very into taking photographs, and I see this as a possible area for us to relate to one another in the future.

The trip was well-planned and went extremely smoothly. Kudos again to Jean and Ahdina Zunkel, whom we highly recommend. Carol and I have done some fabulous safaris, so this would not rank as our top game viewing experience. But it was plenty good, and more than sufficient to give Zoe a taste of the thrill of safaris.

For me, photography is a part of travel. But photography clearly was not what this trip was about. I hope I got a few worthwhile photos–and I am intrigued with the out-of-focus night safari shots, which I think may be the photographic highlight of the trip for me. Part of my aim was to document the trip by including photos of Zoe and Carol. So, whatever comes of the photographs will be quite fine with me. And, as I said, I love the fact that Zoe enjoyed the photography as much as she did.

I’ll end where I began this blog, by recognizing how incredibly fortunate Carol and I are to be able to have this experience with Zoe. And Phoebe, who’s two years behind, is already reading and thinking about where she wants to go for her 13th birthday trip. We can’t wait for what we know will be a different, but equally exciting, experience; so, bring it on, Phoebz.

A Final Lazy Day

May 19

Our last full day. A bit sad, but it’s been a wonderful run, and it’s probably time to end. At dinner last night, Zoe said that it has been great fun, but she’s looking forward to getting home and seeing everyone. Fair enough.

Breakfast (eggs Benedict) by the beach, then email checking. Zoe finds that she now has nine children signed up for her week-long drama camp that starts June 6. Since the theater piece she’s written to be performed by the campers has only seven characters, she needs to rewrite to add people. I tell her that she can now send a “reminder” to those who have not registered, telling them that there are now only a few spots left.  She says that she’s already sent a reminder a few days ago (from Africa!) and that’s what has generated the recent registrations.  Zoe has hired Phoebe as her assistant for the camp and is paying her 20% of the take. The kid is pretty amazing.

Zoe and I make a rather unsuccessful snorkeling try. The rocks at the first spot are too slippery and the waves too strong. The second place we try is better and we make it into the water, but Zoe does not feel comfortable, so we give it up and go swimming off the beach for awhile instead.We rest, read, nap and lunch, then Zoe and I are driven into town to see the local life and to take some photos. It’s tough to convince our driver that what I really want to see are the perfectly ordinary scenes of town life. In the end, he sorta buys in, so here are some of the resulting photos.

Back to the lodge, where a group of about twenty young folks from a local Anglican Church performs some songs and dances. Energetic and rhythmic, but not close in quality to what we heard the other day at St Peter’s.

Zoe, Carol and I enjoy a very good last dinner on the beach, then retire to our cottage, where Zoe and Carol play cards, and I blog and read.

Day Off for Good Behavior 

May 18
Well, today was definitely a day off. And we deserved it, as we’ve been keeping a pretty torrid pace, not burning the candle at both ends, as we’ve gotten to bed at a very decent hour, but our (sometimes ridiculously) early starts have made for tiring days. I felt a particular need for the day off, because I didn’t sleep well due to constant itching. Not exactly sure the cause, but it seems to have gone away.

The idea of the place we’re staying at is terrific. The setting is beautiful, it’s decorated with great flair with items made largely at the women’s workshop we visited yesterday, the staff is friendly and the food is very good. The reality of the place, though, is not quite so good. The sand is hard on your feet, the rooms, while large enough (and we have a two-bedroom cottage), do not really provide a place to put stuff. A railing on a small flight of steps would make the room safer.  While water sports are available, there’s nobody with a real presence to make use of them easy. The bumpy roads are just the way it is, but you’d be more likely to use them to travel around the island if the suspension in the vehicles were better, less bone jarring.

Anyway, I’m sounding like the ugly American, and I don’t mean to. It’s very lovely here, but not perfect. It’s actually quite a good spot to do what we did today. Nothing. We lazed around, Zoe and I swam some and used the very slow (there I go again) internet. Folks around the world are having whole lot worse days than we are, that’s for sure. It’s sorta nice just to have a day off in a lovely spot.

My camera got a deserved day off, too. I did get photos of a beautiful, green bee eater in the tree outside our cottage, but I’d have to download several hundred photos to get that for you, and you really didn’t want to see the damn bee eater that badly, did you? If you did, let me know, and I’ll send it to you when I get home. For now, how about making do with these iPad photos of our environs, which will give you a pretty good idea of our day.

And, okay, here’s the damn bee eater, too.

Keeping Our Safaris on Land

May 16
Up at 5:15, mini-breakfast, out for game drive and back for maxi-breakfast at 9:30. Best way to explain the outing is with photos, below. The first is an excellent example of an uncommon specie, the bright-shoed, rolling-eyed teenager (female) 😄.Long break to relax, blog, begin to pack, etc (interrupted, of course, by another meal) before our river boating safari, starting at 3PM. 

During the break, Carol and Jodi play the traditional African Safari game of spit.

River safari doesn’t happen because of boat problem.So, instead we do another land safari, ending in a great sundowner sunset.  

Black rhinos that supposedly inhabit the park remain clandestine.

As it turns dark, I get the idea of shooting the back of our spotter at slow speeds, as he swings the spot light back and forth across the road. You may hate these (or at least not like so many of them), but I love them, and it’s my damn blog, so I’m puttin’ them in. (I’d be interested in reactions–love ’em, hate ’em, don’t see what the big deal is.)

Back at the lodge we have dinner by the pool under the stars with the manager, Charl. We hear about the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, which Charl used to lecture on, and about his family’s history in Namibia (his grandfather sold supplies to gold miners) and in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where his family had a wine farm. Back to our chalet to pack for an early start tomorrow

Happy Birthday

May 15

The two pictures above belong in the village discussion below, but I’ve already wasted WAY more time than it’s worth trying to move them, so they’re staying here.

Zoe’s thirteenth birthday! What a treat to be able to spend it alone with her in Africa.

Zoe is still pill-challenged, so that Carol is in charge of cutting it into four pieces and hiding it in yogurt to help with the process (note Carol’s hand with the spoon), over breakfast each morning.

Carol and I were quite skeptical about today’s morning activity, which was described in the itinerary as, “This morning you will drive 20 minutes from the Majete Wildlife Reserve to Sekera Village near Chikhwawa Boma. learn more about the people, culture and daily living of Malawian villagers on your Majete Community Visit. Experience the traditional lifestyles of Malawi and witness the age old customs of a Lower Shire village. Learn about the staple food in the area, view traditional arts and crafts including mat and basket making, walk through the village to see the type of houses built by the community, learn about community income generating projects, and experience the local masked “Gule Wamkulu” dance.” Well, guess what, we did all of these things and, while clearly they were planned with us in mind, it did not feel at all hokey or artificial. There was no attempt to sell us anything, nor were we asked for a donation (we’d paid a fee of just over $100, for the three of us to do the tour). 

This was a village much like what Carol and I have experienced many times in Ghana, except that the swarm of kids here was far better behaved than the enthusiastic little kids we saw in Ghana villages. As we walked along with them from place to place, the kids were guided occasionally by men with sticks, much the way goats might be. This sounds terrible, but in fact it was done very gently and subtlety. We were very glad that Zoe was exposed to the village. At the dance ceremony we saw, we convinced Zoe (under some duress) to sing a song for the assembled throng, which was warmly received. We explained to Zoe that this type of sharing is a way of showing respect and building relationships and that it’s worth doing, even when it takes you a bit outside your comfort zone. She understood. As part of the dance performances, the villagers sang happy birthday to Zoe.

On the way back to the lodge, we stopped for a drink, and Zoe was able to talk to her family, which made her (and, I’m sure, them) very happy. I was able to post that I wasn’t blogging because of lack of internet at the lodge. More importantly, I was able to check and find that the Cubs had beaten the Pirates twice while I was offline. Life is good.

We drove back to the lodge, spotting more game en route. Rather light lunch, then we decided on a late drive this evening, so Zoe and Carol are up at the pool and I’m blogging on our private deck overlooking the river. 

So, for those of you who have not been on safari, this afternoon/evening’s drive provides a good example of the experience.

Showering before the afternoon drive was an excellent idea, as even though it’s supposedly winter here, it was sunny and in the 80s at the village, so removing the grunginess felt great. To begin (and end) the drive, we need to walk across the river on the suspension bridge that is about 100 yards long. So imagine yourself walking the length of a football field across a swift river, bouncing on narrow boards with hungry crocodiles waiting below. I lied about the crocs and there are wires that one can hold onto as you cross, but it’s still a bit of a thrill, swaying high over the river.

Starting off late in the afternoon, the air is cool, the wind in your face, and you are filled with anticipation for what you may find. You remain alert, keep your eyes peeled, even though more than 90% of what’s seen is found by the guide or spotter. When occasionally you spot something the guide has not seen, he tells you, “well spotted” and you are filled with pride and think yourself ready to become a full time safari guide.

The road is jarringly bumpy. The sky grows darker, as the sun begins to set, and you can see mountains in the distance against the colorful sky. We spot a few things, most notably, a beautiful antelope called the sable, but nothing particularly exciting. After about an hour, you begin feeling philosophical, telling yourself that sometimes you just don’t see interesting stuff and it’s all about the search, anyway.  I’m not a fisherman, but I imagine the feeling is akin to what a fisherman feels, enjoying being out in the boat, even if the fish aren’t biting.

It’s dark now, and the spotlight is being shone back and forth across the road by the spotter. Then, suddenly, lions, a male and female, appear, together with the evidence that their relationship was non-Platonic–two cubs. You watch the lions for about half an hour; the drive clearly is a success.

As we head back to the lodge, we hear a hissing sound, as one of our tires goes flat. Another adventure. Our guide and spotter change the tire, with us remaining in the jeep. A second flat tire would present a real problem, though the guide has a radio and could call for help.

Tire fixed, we head back to the lodge, and are joined at dinner by the Swedish guy, Mike. At the close of dinner, the entire staff marches out with a cake, singing happy birthday to Zoe.

I’m guessing that her thirteenth birthday is one Zoe will not soon forget.