Dispatches for July 2004:
Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
July 2, 2004: Tankwa Karoo National Park
|1. July 2, 2004
2. July 3, 2004
3. July 5, 2004
4. July 6, 2004
|5. July 8, 2004
6. July 10, 2004
7. July 15, 2004
8. July 20, 2004
| 9. July 22, 2004|
10. July 31, 2004
We landed on an airstrip that was huge, but barely distinguishable from the vast plains of identical flat, barren land that we had covered getting here from Cape Town. It is amazing how fast you leave what feels like the richest suburb in coastal Massachusetts to an arid, barren desert. We were greeted by Conrad Strauss at 2 p.m., right on schedule. He works for South African National Parks. He is a big man around 40 with a smile as broad as he is. As soon as we departed in the truck, he asked the same question everyone has asked us in our odyssey around this country: Would we like to see the park or go to our accommodations? We took the first option and spent the next five hours in Tankwa Karoo National Park. As we drove toward the park, we passed through several fence lines. I opened and closed the gates faithfully like a ranch hand and asked questions about sheep. They call it farming here, not ranching, and it seems that each European farmer has between 10,000 and 20,000 acres (4,000 and 8,000 hectares) so they can provide their family with a decent living. I asked Conrad about stocking rates and then about the best graze, soils, altitude, rainfall, and vegetation. He knew it all and told us about the history of this young park. It turns out most of it used to be his dad's sheep farm. They sold it to the parks after they started managing another piece the parks had inherited. He was trying to push it up to more than 100,000 hectares (200,000 acres) and that seemed attainable with chunks coming in bits of 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) per farm. As we passed by some small stubble of grass, Conrad almost slammed on the brakes. He started to talk about the faint cover of Bushmen's grass that was just catching in the depressions. He said two years ago they had no grass here. His mission was to revegetate this completely overgrazed land and then to bring it right back to its natural splendor. I asked him how many employees he had. He said half sheepishly, "Just one." I'm rooting for Conrad and can't wait to see his park 20 years from now.
July 3, 2004: Electrical Failure in Never-Never Land
We left the Springbok Airport and flew over the big copper mine there that closed two years ago. This is beautiful country, full of granite inselbergs that lead into the Kalahari Desert to the north. We were headed to the Richtersveld National Park, kind of the Mecca of the Succulent Karoo. We were going to fly through the Namaqua National Park to the west of town, but the fog off the sea kept us inland. There is a sharp divide between the winter rainfall and summer rainfall areas here. I don't know when the big season for fog is, but you would think it would be in summer when warm air hits that cold sea, but apparently it is more on the winter side. We got about 40 miles (60 kilometers) out and my computer started acting funny, the photo software started going haywire, and I thought maybe the camera came unplugged. Peter then started in his Austrian accent, "Shies, what is happening here now?" You have to remember we just got out of Stellenbosch after a week of repairing the plane. And all of the sudden we are getting no juice charging into our battery, and that was creating havoc on my camera. More importantly, this also meant that we were running all of our electrical equipment off a battery that was no longer charging. We decided to head back to Springbok. We arrived safely and took a look at the generator, the connections, the wires, and decided after about three hours of fiddling with it that we needed help. Surprisingly, I wasn't super-stressed and didn't have a conniption fit about losing yet another day to this machine.
July 5, 2004: Verneuk Pan
Today we landed in Verneuk Pan, which is somewhere between Jaght Drift and Zwartkop. This is a giant salt pan, like the ones around Salt Lake. This evening I took a walk, looking for life on the earth. There were a few bushes that were actually pretty thick in patches, and they were almost petrified because they were so dead. There was no other life. This is a desolate country covered by private sheep farms.
This is no doubt the coldest night we have had, and our plane won't start again. So what do you do when your plane won't start and it looks like there isn't another human being on the planet? We prayed and a miracle came. Two people in a brand new Land Rover showed up. The woman got out of the passenger seat and greeted us. She knew exactly who we were. She worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Cape Town and had received an e-mail about our voyage. We finally got the old red bird warmed up and off again into the wild blue.
July 6, 2004: Tswalu — Watch Video
Finally, after well over 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) of flying, we were going to see the Kalahari Desert, destination Tswalu. We were met at the airport by a man named Andrew. We started a dreamy drive over red dunes and in just a short jaunt we saw kudu, zebras, giraffes, red hartebeests, and blue wildebeests in the dense cover of grass. Just five years ago, Andrew said, there was hardly a stitch of grass to be seen in this area. Carrying capacity had dropped and many farmers were going belly-up.
Along came a British industrialist in the 1990s and he decided, like many Europeans and Americans who fall in love with this veld, to start buying some land and rehabilitating it. This guy was Steve Bola. They say he just showed up in his jet, checkbook in hand, and started giving farmers good money for their land. In his will he wanted his family to offer Tswalu to one of the big families of South Africa. Nicky Oppenheimer decided to purchase the whole place. The Oppenheimer's have hired a man to manage it, and from what I saw in my short time there, this was like the discovery of a new mathematical theorem: make money on a consolidation of money-losing and overgrazed sheep farms by bringing nature back. The veld here is now covered with wildlife, including rhinos. Not only that, but this land is creating more jobs, which is developing the area like never before. The natural vegetation has also recovered to a point that it now probably looks like it did before the Europeans ever set foot on this continent.
July 8, 2004: Border Crossing
We crossed into Namibia and I was kind of tense because we hadn't worked out our permissions to be in the country yet. I had to get it done in one day in a city that I didn't know. I'd been communicating with the Ministry of Education and Tourism for months, but had just gotten noncommittal responses to fly over their parks. When I showed up at the ministry, I met with Ben Beytell, the director of parks and wildlife management, and Ulrich Boois, the deputy director of parks. Two hours later, after we'd discussed just about every single spot in Namibia, I went into the head warden's office for Namibia Naukluft National Park and asked him to establish my permit. I left the office free and clear. We'll be back in the air tomorrow.
July 10, 2004: Fish River Canyon — Watch Video
We were out in the wild blue again. We transitioned from the Kalahari back into the Nama Karoo ecoregion. Gone were supple red dunes and reed grasses. We were back into a country of rock. Our destination: Fish River Canyon. It's supposed to be the second biggest canyon after the Grand Canyon. Once we landed, we were headed for a place called Canon Lodge. Arnold, the head guide for the lodge, picked us up and took us to an experimental farm at the lodge. We toured this place and my jaw dropped to the floor the whole way through. On less than a hectare, these guys were producing vegetables of all kinds, as well as eggs, milk, and other products. Amazing.
At the lodge we met Norbert Noirfalise, he was part owner and general manager. At dinner we talked. This was a private game ranch. They had consolidated just like everybody else and had 100,000 hectares (200,000 acres). They had 20,000 bed nights a year and four profit centers or lodges. You could just tell that Norbert was one of those super managers who had everything under control and it was easy for him. This guy was a wizard. I kept thinking that we should put everyone on Earth through Norbert's school of how to get 40,000 person days of food out of less than a hectare of land and make money doing it. This is extremely powerful for conservation.
July 15, 2004: Torra Conservancy — Watch Video
We landed in Palmwag and a car with a big WWF sticker was sitting there waiting for us. A Namibian woman named Aino Humphrey greeted us, and immediately we were off in to see the folks in the Torra Conservancy. There was a meeting of principals, who were negotiating a deal with a lodge owner. As soon as I sat down with these guys and they started talking, I knew this was something different from the normal community conservation project that's mostly about education. These guys were about managing land for the betterment of the people. The biggest revenue generators were ecotourism and safari hunting. The employees have to come from the local community. There's also a benefit distribution plan that's reviewed every year and a management plan that's reviewed every five. Right now, tourism activity does not account for enough income to replace people's livestock, so there hasn't been a move to reduce livestock numbers. Overgrazing does not seem to be a problem in these conservancies. There has been no reintroduction of wildlife, just recovery from poaching and drought. The numbers have gone up in Torra quickly and consistently. The amount of poaching has gone to very low levels. Before this certainly was not the case.
July 20, 2004: Sheep Herding in Himbaland — Watch Video
Today our destination was the Kunene River, which forms the border with Angola. We were on the ground by 3 p.m. and met up with a guide who drove us south. On our way, we saw a Himba man and decided to stop. Our Namibian guide, who speaks a language similar to the Himba's, found out that this man, named Pezara, was headed to a water hole to look for some cattle, and that his family was in a wash a few hundred meters to the west. We accompanied him home and met his wife, Vengipo Trivinda. As we sat there, Vengipo pulled down a woven flour bag hanging from the rafters of her hut. As she started rummaging around, it was obvious that this sack contained her worldly possessions: a few gourds for milk, some plastic water containers, a couple of leather ornaments for her headdress, a few blankets, a wooden pillow that looked like an anvil, and this pipe that she'd made from a cow's femur. Amazingly, she even proudly pulled out a birth certificate, and all be damned if it didn't say that she was born the same year as me. I thought, Man, she looks old for her age. Then I thought, No, you are old Fay and she is old like you. You could sense that neither one of was old at heart.
Pezara was off to the east with the goats and sheep and Vengipo was nowhere to be seen. We walked with the kids a bit and I finally spied Vengipo taking up the rear with the cows. I walked with her and she was having a great time trying to communicate with me. Vengipo was cajoling me, telling me that I had to help herd. I grabbed a stick and was trying to make that clicking sound you make by sucking air through your teeth. Vengipo was now just about rolling on the ground with laughter because I was so bad at it. My sheep were grazing where they wanted, veering all over the place and I was building up a good sweat running from side to side. The goats hit an acacia tree and they climbed right up into it to graze. These things really are like locusts. Any little piece of vegetation they nibble right down to nothing. We were now moving at a good clip, and I was clucking away like a real champ. The river was still a good 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. I thought to myself, I could do this, get myself a Himba girl, get really good at finding graze, and keep my herd and family fat. Of course the difference between one afternoon and a lifetime is a big one.
Peter and I were going to fly that afternoon over the dunes with National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz, so we had to leave these guys after just a couple of hours. We would try to catch up with them the next morning before we headed out of Himbaland.
July 22, 2004: Caprivi Strip
We landed at a place called Ngepi. To our surprise this was the classic campground hangout for overlanders. The man running the show here who picked us up at the airport is actually an ex-overlander named Neil. I was kind of hurting for power, so Neil took me to a bar, "the only place with current." I set up there with my wires, connectors, cables, hard drives, and computers. We sat around and as it got darker he told me that I might want to move my stuff because it gets rowdy sometimes. As I checked out the visitors, three phenotypes emerged. There were the French couples, about ten of them traveling together. They had probably rented vehicles down in South Africa and were taking one of those drive-your-own safaris. They kept to themselves and had their own food and wine. The Dutch contingent was grouped around the fire. They kind of talked about the others and challenged me, asking me what I was doing. Then there were the British school kids who pitched up. I would put them at about 17 years old. These kids were on their own with their South African driver and they had one objective: to get wasted. For about the next three hours these kids challenged themselves to shots. I felt like I had landed yet again on another planet. I had to kind of pinch myself to remember that I was sitting with the Himba, helping them bleed a goat in the middle of the most beautiful desert only some 24 hours before. Now I was watching about 20 British kids getting hammered at a California theme bar on the Caprivi Strip. I don't care what anybody says, this is a very strange world.
July 31, 2004: Central Kalahari Day
Just after first light, I walked down to the river to see the hippos. They were coming back downstream to their wallow polls after a night of feeding on the grasses to the west of the river. I approached to within about 20 to 25 meters (70 to 80 feet), and the hippos and I stared at each other. They bobbed up and down in the water. Their nostrils closed before they submerged. On the opposite bank were a couple of male lechwe. With the sun well up, I went back to camp for breakfast.
There was to be a changing of the guard today. My pilot, Mario, was taking a break, and Peter would now be flying the plane. I knew Peter was not planning on flying today, but fortunately, he loves to fly, so I was able to coax him into a flight I wanted to make. We took off for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. I also wanted to fly over Lake Ngami, one of the farthest-off watercourses that receives water from the delta and, at that, only in wet years. This year the lake is flooded more extensively than it has been in many years. The folks from Maun were saying that the number of quelea birds was phenomenal—in the millions. I wanted to see it.
We cruised west of Maun at low level to avoid the morning rush of flights out of that place and soon we were south of town. Below us were lots of roads and fences, indicating the dominance in this area of the Botswana Livestock Development Corporation. The land was overgrazed, even though there didn't seem to be tons of cattle. Evidently, years of misuse and overuse had made the land unproductive.
We followed Nhabe creek, which flows out of the delta into Lake Ngami, an extended pan or depression that in wet years becomes a lake. Usually, along the watercourse which has water only a few months out of the year, a string of holes dug into the riverbed would provide water for the cattle on the numerous cattle farms along this drainage. Now, though, all these holes, or kraals, were inundated by a huge plain of water, which had also flooded houses and fields. Cattle were standing stomach-high in water, and hundreds of cattle had sought dry ground along the banks in the dense acacia forest that lined this temporary lake.
As we flew over the watery expanse, it seemed that the entire surface of the lake began stir of its own accord. I refocused my eyes and then discerned tens of thousands of birds—quelia, masses of them, looking like a dust storm blowing over the water. These birds eat grain, so I don't understand why they find this lake so interesting. Maybe they come for the sorghum and millet left behind from last year's crop, but why would they be here now? Obviously, there is something about the water that attracts them. Folks have been saying that about 20 lanner falcons have been feeding on the quelea, but there are enough birds here to support a couple of thousand falcons.
From Ngami, we headed south directly toward the Central Kalahari. There were still fences south of the lake and a good number of cattle, but as we went farther south signs of humans became more and more scarce. We saw one settlement that was no more than a few tents, a small kraal, and a bore hole with about thirty cattle around it. There was no game here and few trails of cattle even. The range looked in good shape.
The striking thing about central Botswana is its amazing flatness. It is so flat that you think you can see the curvature of the earth. It wasn't long before we flew over one of those double fences that are called buffalo fences here in Botswana. This fence was freshly graded in a perfectly straight line for as far as the eye could see. Just about one kilometer south of the fence, we saw an oryx, and then another, and then a lot more in places. It's amazing. You cross a protected area boundary and, presto, there is wildlife. We have seen this again and again, and Bostwana is no exception. We flew over a landscape of short shrubs, probably a species of acacia, and grass. There are no cattle in here and no hunting. The oryx number in the thousands. We also saw hartebeest, ostrich, and springbok. Gone are the plains game from east of the Okavango and the Chobe Rivers to the north. How strange it is flying in these planes, as we pass over protected-area boundaries and go so quickly from one world into another, from a human-dominated world or one where animals still reign. If there were not set-aside areas, humans would use up every bit of space.
The 12-volt system gave up the ghost one more time and I went ballistic. Here we were on top of one of our wildest places, and, again, the machine is on the blink, the batteries on the computer are flat, the program is crashing because it is not getting the juice it needs. Even so, we had flown over our point, and I had photos from it. It was one of the wildest places yet.
We got back to Maun, and Peter brought us right to the shop. He was determined to finally fix this problem. We picked up gossip from around town. We learned that lions near our camp had been poisoned—14 of them. It was a shame. Villagers from the Santawani concession had poisoned them because they are sick and tired of losing cattle. Mike says that the researchers do no community outreach, so they are partly at fault. The government gives herders only 500 pula for a cow killed by lions, but a cow is worth much more than that.
Mike bought a local paper, which had an article about a Bushman, helped by First Nations and Amnesty International, who brought a case to court contesting the government's claim to the Central Kalahari. The judge asked the man if he had the papers for his land. The Bushman claimed he does not need papers. This is a hot issue here and all over the world. Originally, the San people had spread all the way to the Mozambique channel, the highlands, the lowlands, all of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, all of southern Africa. Why, then, must the last protected area be the last piece of land to succumb to human colonization when surely this will mean the death of the Bushmen? The Central Kalahari is the reason why there are still some Bushmen left. Yet, the government would take it and use the land like humans have used the rest? The government should never have taken the San people from the Central Kalahari. It is a mess, and now it has become internationally politicized. Preserve that great flat expanse that is central Botswana and you'll preserve the San and the wildlife, too.
As I write this, I am back in the Khwai River Camp. The hyenas are just outside camp. These giant civet cats want to come in and scrounge. Tomorrow, we go to the dogs—we'll be trying to track down wild dogs for a week. That is going to be lots of fun.
||These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints of individual expedition members.