East or West?
It was my first trip around the world and I didn’t want to screw it up.
The biggest decision is which way to go: east or west? In my experience jet lag is less severe when flying west. But an experienced round-the-the-world acquaintance said I should go east, because the prevailing winds make the flights shorter. Perhaps so in the northern hemisphere. But most of my trip would be in the southern, so the winds probably went the other way.
As things developed I had no choice. The availability of those whom I needed to meet—this was, after all, a business trip—required that I go to Africa before Australia. That required flying east. Looking at the world map from the perspective of the southern hemisphere—from the south pole in other words—that meant I would be going clockwise around the world.
The second big question is deciding where to stop, and how many stops. Phineas Fogg circled the world in eighty days while being able to boast of stops in Spain, Egypt, India, China, and America before returning to London.
This is not a trivial point. A “trip around the world” implies seeing the world. Is John Glenn, for example (the first American to orbit the earth) a valid “round the world” traveler? I think not, for he didn’t stop anywhere. There’s a certain “he who stops in the most places wins” subliminal competition among round the world travelers, even if I’m the first to acknowledge it. I remember that my sister Beth, on her first round-the-world trip, stopped in Germany, India, Thailand, and China. Others have done better, but not a bad list, on balance.
Mine wouldn’t be so impressive. Much as I would have liked to schedule meetings in Ireland, Portugal, Tibet, Burma, Singapore, Bora-Bora, and Peru, in truth I had no reason to visit those places—only the desire to do so. Nor did I have the time. One can be an accomplished round the world traveler, or one can be married. I’d chosen the latter.
My pitiful round-the-world stops would include only England, South Africa, and Australia. Not nearly as good as Phineas Fogg but better than John Glenn. And the marriage would survive.
“What you want to do,” explained the Denver native who sat next to me on the Chicago-London flight, “is ignore the food and go right to sleep.” Shamelessly, I was traveling in what’s called “International First Class,” thanks to an upgrade provided by my frequent flier miles. Two people had advised this.
“Forget Business Class,” Beth had explained. “It’s simply not worth it. The seats are wider. Big deal. Save your money. But International First Class is different. The seats fold down completely, and it’s like you have your own bed. If you have to get business done the next day, you really need to fly first class.” At the time she’d been working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had a strict policy. Domestic travel was in coach. Flights from the East Coast to Europe were Business Class. Anything longer: first class only. “It makes sense,” she’d explained. “It’s not cost effective if you have to spend two or three days getting caught up on sleep and un jet-lagged, once you reach your destination. But if you can arrive refreshed and ready for business you save a lot of time and money. That’s why the Chamber of Commerce has that policy.”
Well, heck. Who was I to argue with the Chamber of Commerce?
“No one can really afford first class” explained a woman who traveled overseas frequently on business, and whom I’d sat with on a recent domestic flight. “It costs zillions of dollars. In fact no one really knows how much it costs because no one ever actually buys a first class ticket. What you want to do is use your frequent flier miles to upgrade to first class. There’s no better use for them.”
So, following this twin set of advice’s, I’d drained my frequent flier account to provide the upgrades to First Class, and I really did think it was justified. I had two meetings in London: one with DeBeers the first day, and the next with CIBJO, the international organization consisting of the heads of all the jewelry organizations around the world. It wasn’t my fault that the DeBeers meeting got canceled just before I left, which meant that in truth I had a whole day to recover before my first meeting. I mean, that’s no reason to change plane reservations is it?
The Boeing 767 lifted into the sky from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, with me in seat 1A. “The problem with the food,” explained my seat mate, “is that it takes too long. They really like to draw it out. Caviar. Salads, Appetizers. Main course. Desert. Cheese and fruit. Port wine. It takes forever. This is only an eight hour flight. Go to sleep now and you almost get a full night’s sleep.” It was important to listen to him because he was very experienced. “I have to travel from Denver to London once a month,” he explained. “My company got purchased by a London conglomerate, and—you know—they like to have meetings.”
Yeah, I hate it when that happens.
United Airlines hands out little “kits” to first class passengers, consisting of obvious things like a toothbrush, comb, and so forth, but also a little “blindfold” to cover your eyes and thus let you more easily go to sleep, and also earplugs. My seat mate stuck in his earplugs, converted his seat to horizontal, slipped on the blindfold, and promptly went to sleep.
Hmmm. I glanced at the first class dinner menu. It began with Beluga Caviar and Dom Perignon champagne and got better from there. I thought about the canceled DeBeers meeting. “Yes,” I said to the friendly flight attendant, desperate to attend to my every need, “I think I’ll be dining tonight…”
Hours later, after the cheese and the port, I slipped on the blindfold, inserted the earplugs, and went to sleep. Several seconds went by and then the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, please buckle your seatbelts, we’ve begun our approach into London’s Heathrow Airport.”
My seat mate stirred awake.
“Damn, can’t remember when I’ve slept so well.”
Curse his soul. I’d enjoyed—what? A minute of sleep? Maybe two minutes?”
“Flight went awfully fast,” I commented groggily.
“Oh, had dinner, did you? That would do it.”
England in the Rain
Everyone has their area of expertise and mine is the London Subway system. It’s not a very valuable thing to know about, as I tend to visit London about once every twelve years, and only for a day or so. But here I was in London, and it would have been scandalous and a blow to my self esteem to travel from the airport in any way other than by “tube.” Furthermore, my administrative assistant, Clare, is British, and knows the London subway as well or better than I do. She’d dutifully prepared a nice map, including directions to my hotel with notations on how to get there by subway.
The entrance to the subway at Heathrow airport is a bit of a walk, but my “travel pack” made light work of the distance. A “travel pack” is a suitcase that converts to a backpack. Those of you still wedded to those hideous “wheeled suitcases” take note: you’re using the wrong technology. You might just as well have bought a Betamax video recorder or an Edsel. A travel pack slips elegantly over one’s back, and—since a back is so remarkably efficient and capable at carrying weight—it becomes almost unnoticed. Meanwhile, as I walked through the tunnels leading to the London subway, those who fall easy prey to snake-oil salesmen and the like were having the devil of a time with their wheeled luggage—finding that it tips over at the slightest provocation, has no ability to take corners, and in general requires one to lean so far over backwards to reach the handle that you end up a hunchback.
With little fuss I, meanwhile, was able to change my currency, purchase a subway token, get myself on the right subway train, and begin enjoying my novel—all the while carrying everything for my trip on my back.
A light rain was falling in London when I emerged out of the Hyde Park tube station. No problem. I’d purchased a lightweight, Goretex, rain parka back in Denver for just such a situation. I slipped it on now, feeling very smug at my foresight, and very smug in general. With my hi-tech travel pack, and even higher-tech Goretex parka, I was invincible.
It’s not true that my single area of expertise is the London subway system. In fact, I have two areas of expertise. The other is my infallible sense of direction. Spin me around, run me through the London subway system, and I emerge knowing instantly which way is North. The number of times this uncanny ability has failed me could be counted on one hand, although all the fingers would be accounted for. I pulled out Clare’s map and prepared to take a bearing to the Grosvernor House hotel, which on the map was precisely—here.
And North was—I glanced around, ready to determine North.
North was—hmmm. Well… North was… There were several candidates for North. I sighed. Time to add one more hand to the number of times my sense of direction has failed me. Of course with the overcast sky and this light rain who could tell where North really was? Damn parka. With any kind of wind blowing, the rain went right into my face despite the hi-tech fabric. An umbrella would have made more sense. The arm straps on my pack chose this moment to begin digging into my flesh, and I began noticing how effective gravity was in this particular area. Unquestionably a stronger pull was being exerted here than had been the case at Heathrow Airport.
I chose a direction and headed off. By reference to Clare’s map, and the street signs, it should quickly become obvious in which direction I was heading. After about twenty minutes of wandering in the rain with the pack getting heavier and heavier, I’d narrowed North down to two out of four possible directions. But I sensed I was no closer to the hotel than when I’d started, possibly farther away. Finally I reached a spot from which it was difficult to progress. The streets—all of which contained an on-going rush of traffic—seemed to converge in such a way as to make further movement in any direction impossible. A very attractive young woman had been in the seat beside me on the subway from Heathrow. Suddenly this same woman appeared beside me, looking as confused as I was. “How do you cross the street?” she asked, remembering me from train. Thousands of cars were rushing by, across several multi-lane roads. Somehow we’d ended up on an island amid a swarm of vehicles.
“I don’t think it’s possible from here,” I explained. “In fact, I think we’re stuck.”
“Oh dear, I hope we’re not stuck forever,” she intoned in her lovely British accent. “There must be a way out, don’t you think?” We maneuvered around a construction site and finally discovered an underground tunnel for pedestrians that brought us back to civilization, and then I never saw her again. Being stranded together on a traffic island was obviously not sufficient grounds for a relationship.
The map had by this time sorted itself out, and while North was still proving elusive, it was clear in which direction lay the hotel. After twenty more minutes of walking I arrived.
“The Grosvernor is right by the Hyde Park tube station,” Clare had promised. Not true. It’s half an hour walk from Hyde Park station! In fact it’s closer to Marble Arch. I was tempted to call her right then on the phone, wake her up no doubt, and complain. But I resisted the impulse. I’d find a way to get even later. As I entered the lobby I was wet and exhausted, while all around me were very calm and collected people who were effortlessly pulling their little two-wheeled suitcases about, and calmly putting away their umbrellas which had kept them so completely dry. But I knew in my soul these people would never have survived that traffic island with those luggage trailers.
After checking in and taking a shower I noticed that the rain had stopped. With my DeBeers meeting canceled, I really just had one mission for the day: buy a sweater. I’d been wanting a good v-neck sweater for a long time, and had never been able to find one I liked. London’s famous “Harrod’s” department store would solve that problem. After a quick ride on a double-decker bus I was deposited at the front door, but they wouldn’t let me in. “Bag check around to the side, sir,” explained the guard at the door.
Bag check? I had to check my daypack? It wasn’t much larger than a woman’s purse. But I dutifully went around the corner and entered the door on that side.
“Sorry, sir. Bag check around to the side…”
Geeez, this was getting ridiculous. I continued walking and finally rounded yet another corner of the building, and found yet another door. “Sorry, sir. Bag check around to the side.”
“Which side?” I demanded, becoming frustrated at being treated like a terrorist just because I was carrying a small day pack.
“Just around the corner, sir…”
So I headed out again, finally rounded another corner, and was sure that this time I’d be able to get inside Harrod’s.
“Sorry, sir” said the doorman. “Baggage check across the street.”
So I went across the street and stood in a queue and paid one pound for the privilege of dropping off my bag, which they were careful to x-ray just in case it was hiding bomb-making ingredients. Finally I made it inside Harrod’s, bought my sweater, reclaimed my bag, and stopped into a pub for a bite to eat. After ordering a shepherd’s pie I noticed a little advertisement on the table for a type of bottled mineral water. “Ferociously Bubbly Water,” said the ad. I ordered some and did find it a bit ferocious. They’d never let it into Harrod’s, certainly.
A high-speed stroll in Hyde Park gave me my exercise for the day, and in fact the day had turned quite lovely. I hopped on one of those London tour buses that continually follow a particular route, and you can get off and on whenever you want. That is, you can sit in the bus the whole two hour trip if you wish, while the guide points out all the sights. Or, at any spot you can jump off, see the site itself, and then catch the next bus and continue the tour. The buses are spaced about fifteen minutes apart, so it’s quite convenient and a wonderful way to see London—especially from the upper deck.
Out of all the sights, I choose only to hop off at St. Paul’s cathedral. I’d been here as a twelve year old, and had taken one of my finest photographs ever: a beautiful, silver chandelier, all aglow, hanging at the very end of the church. Just for fun, I wanted to see if the chandelier was still there. A quick tour left me disappointed—apparently they’d redecorated the place because my beautiful silver glowing chandelier was no longer visible. I’d gone to the very end of the cathedral, and was just turning to head back to the front door. Then I saw it! It was hanging in a corner across from the main entrance. And—in the strange way memory does things—I suddenly remembered that that’s how I’d taken the picture as a twelve year old: standing way up here in front, and turning back to see the chandelier with the light on it from the open doorway.
My childhood memory now validated, I hopped back on the next tour bus to search out one more memory: Seafresh Restaurant. My wife and I had discovered this wonderful fish and chips pub on our honeymoon in 1982. Against all odds, I’d been able to find it again when we’d returned to London on the way to Morocco in 1985. Now it was a ritual: return to London, and try to find Seafresh Restaurant. I knew it was in the general vicinity of Victoria Station, so I hopped off the bus at that point. And I had a very, very dim memory that I’d re-discovered it in ‘85 by walking down a street to the east side of Victoria Station. So I did the same thing and after ten minutes there it was.
My faith in my sense of direction was at least partially restored.
CIBJO, the international “standards-setting” organization consisting of the heads of all the jewelry associations world-wide, occupies a very prestigious position in the jewelry industry. But, when I arrived at their office the next morning, I discovered that CIBJO does not occupy a very prestigious position in London. Squeezed into a few uninspired rooms in a small brick building in an isolated and non-descript part of town, it’s physical location belies its supposed importance. But the people were friendly and over steak and kidney pies at a nearby restaurant we were able to complete the business that needed to be completed. By late afternoon I was back at Heathrow, ready to board South African Airways Flight 989 for Johannesburg. I would be leaving rainy London behind, but what I could expect in exchange was hard to know. What kind of country was South Africa? It was thousands of miles from anywhere I’d ever even been before. What would I find: a nation torn by racial strife? A modern country boasting a European infrastructure and business climate? A wilderness of zebras and giraffes? I walked onto the plane with some trepidation, finding myself curiously reluctant to leave England, in spite of the rain.
South to South Africa
Leaving Chicago I’d failed to heed good advice, and had chosen to stay awake through the torturously long dinner service. As the South African Airways 747 climbed into the British skies and headed south, I was determined not to repeat this mistake. When I arrived in Johannesburg at 7a.m. I needed to be ready for a full day of business. A good night’s sleep was essential. I would have to learn to “just say no” to the fabulous dinner, take a sleeping pill, and conk out.
On this particular flight that would not be difficult. I was in the back row of International First Class, meaning there would be no loud conversationalists arguing politics behind my ear. There was a wall behind my ear. And, astonishingly, there was not even anyone seated next to me. The stewardess handed out the menus for the night’s fare. I wouldn’t be having any food, but I was curious to see what might be offered on South African Airways. It looked pretty good. I glanced over the wine list. It began with a long essay by a master vintner on the exceptional flavor to be obtained from truly premium Champagne grapes. After reading it, I had an understandable curiosity about this flavor.
The dinner menu began with a “crab sampler,” and expanded from there.
A crab sampler? How did that work, exactly?
“Yes, I’d like to sample this crab please. Just a bite. Hmmm. No, I don’t think so. Throw him back in the water. Let’s try another…”
Yet it occurred to me that this might be my only chance ever to sample crabs. It was time to rethink my strategy. The flight from Chicago was only eight hours long. Obviously there was no time for dinner if you also wanted eight hours of sleep. But London to Johannesburg was 12 hours. You could easily squander two or three of them on dining, sleep eight hours, and still have time for breakfast in the morning. There was more than enough time to sample crabs.
Three hours later, having sampled crabs and more, I was ready to take a sleeping pill and go to sleep. But wait a minute. A sleeping pill would make me groggy the next morning, wouldn’t it? It was pretty late already. I couldn’t afford to be groggy, with all those meetings. It would be better not to take one.
Two hours after this decision had been made, while I lay wide awake in my horizontal international first class sleeping seat, I began to wish I’d taken three or four pills. Not only was I not sleeping, I was worried about not sleeping, which makes it impossible to sleep. And the more this vicious circle had me in its grasp, the more I began worrying about what would happen if I arrived in Johannesburg without sleep. But it was too late to take a pill now. Morning was not that far away.
So, with plenty of time to lie there and think, I began to think about South Africa. I’d played a little game with my kids before I’d left, to test their geographic knowledge. “You’re taking a plane from London to South Africa,” I’d said. “Name at least three countries you must fly over.”
“France, Algeria, and Zaire,” guessed Kristen, my ten year old. She was very good at geography. I once had been very good at geography, too, and Africa had been my specialty. There had been a time when I could have drawn a map of Africa free-hand, sketched in the countries, and included at least half their capitals. In fact, I’d done it once, just to prove I could.
I’d always wanted to go to Africa. As a teenager I was mesmerized with thoughts of the Congo, the Nile river, South Africa, Stanley and Livingston—that kind of thing. The closest I’d ever come was Morocco, on a two week vacation twelve years ago. But Morocco wasn’t the real Africa. It was too close to Spain. It was contaminated by Europe.
I raised my head and glanced out the window. A beautiful, full moon illuminated a vast expanse of cloud below us. Down there were some of the most exotic lands on the planet. What country were we over now? Algeria? Niger? Cameroon? Like I was supposed to sleep while flying over Cameroon? Yeah, that would happen. So I stared out the window for a while, at the moon, and the clouds, and then lay back and thought more about South Africa.
It had been slightly over a year ago when a very pleasant, soft-spoken man had arrived at the Polygon booth at the Las Vegas jewelry show, asking to speak to me. I’d been away from the booth, and so he’d returned several times until finally we’d intercepted.
“I came from South Africa, to this show, just to meet you,” he’d said, which got my attention. As the story came out, it seemed that this man, Deonne le Roux, (a name from an Agatha Christie novel if there ever were one) was a jeweler from Pretoria, South Africa. He’d brought credentials–written documents–attesting to his character, his financial solvency, and the fact that he’d been past president of something called the Jewelry Association of South Africa.
Before this, it had never occurred to me that there might be jewelers in South Africa. Lions, yes. Crocodiles, certainly. Jewelers? It seemed unlikely.
He wanted to start a clone of Polygon in South Africa. He proposed a relationship where he marketed the system, and we split the revenue on some formula. Then he said the magic words. “What I’d really like, is if you could come to South Africa next summer, just before the Jewelex Trade Fair, for the launch of the network.”
Go to Africa? On a business trip?
“Uh, OK,” I said, agreeing to everything on the spot.
Since that brief meeting Deonne and I had been in contact only by fax. We were a long way from finalizing even the basic terms of our relationship, but that hadn’t bothered either of us. We were about to launch Polygon/South Africa. I’d had my Web people build the network, which was now operational. I had a demo version of it on my laptop. And in addition to meeting with “as many jewelry association heads” as Deonne could arrange, I was also going to be delivering speeches on the Internet, the Jewelry Industry, and how Polygon/South Africa fit into that mix. One speech would be in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town. Deonne himself would be meeting me at the airport. Beyond all that, I hadn’t a clue.
Certainly I hadn’t written the speech yet. I’m prone to writing speeches several minutes before delivering them—a very bad habit I picked up as a teenager competing on the high-school extemporaneous speaking circuit in Iowa. But I’m good at “extemp” speeches only when I’ve had plenty of sleep the night before. I prayed I wouldn’t have to deliver one the first day in South Africa.
Anyone who’s read James Michener’s “The Covenant” (and I’d been re-reading it furiously for the last several weeks) knows all one needs to about the history of South Africa. Specifically, the Dutch had been the first to establish a European presence there, and the country had been largely settled (from a “white” perspective) by Dutch farmers called “Boers”. Boer means “farmer” in Dutch. Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France emigrated there in large numbers during the 1700’s and merged genetically and spiritually with the Boers, who shared their old-testament orientation. The Napoleonic Wars turned South Africa over to England in 1798, much to the dismay of the Boers, who tried to wrest it back during the “Boer Wars” around 1900. By that time the Boer’s language had mutated from 17th century Dutch into a completely different language called “Afrikaans.” The real Dutch considered Afrikaans a corruption of Dutch, much as Americans consider “Ebonics” a corruption of English. But by the twentieth century the Boers had only contempt for their sissified distant cousins in Amsterdam. And the Dutch eagerly returned that sentiment. Although they lost the Boer Wars to England, the Boers (now preferring to be called “Afrikaners”) outnumbered the English in South Africa in the early twentieth century and began taking over the government through democratic means. What they’d failed to gain with the sword, they became very adept at gaining with the pen.
Against this “white” background was the fact that the blacks and “coloureds” (mixed race) in South Africa outnumbered all the whites by about five to one. That was no problem for the Afrikaners, who merely passed laws depriving blacks and coloureds of voting rights. And they’d seeded the court system with enough Afrikaner judges to ensure that these absurd laws were declared constitutional.
It should be noted that the Afrikaners had nothing against the blacks. They just felt the races should be kept separate, or “apart.” This became embodied in a set of laws labeled generically “apartheid”, Afrikaans for “apartness.” Oh, and by the way, not only were the races kept apart, but the white race was accorded supremacy. (Just a minor detail.)
The world woke up to the ridiculousness of all this in the early 1970’s when the boycott of South Africa began. And it continued until free elections were implemented in the early 1990’s. Nelson Mandela (a black) was elected president by popular vote, and a whole new constitution (and flag) were adopted. The boycott was dropped, and South Africa was welcomed into the family of nations as the ultimate multicultural society.
So I had the benefit of knowing all this about South African history, and the disadvantage of having had no sleep, as the 747 began its descent into Johannesburg. Deonne had promised to meet me right after the customs gates—which is as close as he could come—but now I began to worry whether we’d even recognize each other. It had been over a year since our 15 minute encounter in Las Vegas.
Jewellers in Johannesburg
Traveling in First Class, and with my carry-on backpack as my only luggage, I was first through customs at Jan Smuts International Airport. Now I entered an arena where everyone who was meeting someone was waiting, and 500 pairs of eyes, almost all of them belonging to white faces, stared at me to determine if I was “the one”. 499 of these dismissed me quickly, but Deonne was there, and we recognized each other at the same moment. “Welcome to South Africa!” he said, pronouncing it “aff-ree’-ka.”
He navigated me out to the parking lot and into his car, which had its steering wheel on the wrong side. Recently I’d seen a Dear Abby column in which she had explained that dozens of countries drive on the left side, not just England. At the moment I was glad South Africans drove on the wrong side because the backwards driving ensured that a steady supply of freaking-out adrenaline would be pumped into my bloodstream during the first half mile as we left the airport. If you can’t have sleep, continuous doses of adrenaline are a good substitute.
I thought it would make sense to get re-acquainted via some light, social banter.
“So,” I began, “I’m trying to figure this country out. Why weren’t there any blacks at the airport? Are they still oppressed, or what, exactly?”
That broke the ice.
Deonne had plenty of opinions where politics were concerned, and over the next several days we engaged in political chit-chat frequently. As a Republican, I didn’t really care if the blacks were oppressed. I was just curious. (Just kidding, of course.) And whatever side Deonne took, I figured I’d play devil’s advocate and take the other. I just love arguing politics, and where better than in South Africa?
But Deonne was so sensible it was hard to find anything about his beliefs that I could disagree with.
“The best thing that ever happened to this country,” he explained, “was the election of Nelson Mandela.”
“You mean that it’s good the blacks got the vote, and they voted a black into office?”
“I’m not talking about his color. I wouldn’t care what his color was. I mean he’s just an incredible leader. He’s bringing the whole nation together!”
“You mean, like, he’s bringing all the blacks together?”
“No, not the blacks. Everyone! He was thrown in jail by the prior administration for 26 years. When he was elected president, everyone expected vengeance. But that wasn’t his style. He preached forgiveness, and urged everyone to forget the past. He made us realize that the prior administration consisted of a bunch of criminals, brainwashing the whole country.”
“So you supported the prior administration?”
“I did, but I shouldn’t have! We were taught that blacks were an inferior race, incapable of governance. It was brainwashing, and we whites were the victims! Now we have Nelson Mandela and we’re being told the truth.”
“Wait a minute. I assumed Nelson Mandela was elected because blacks were the majority. You make it sound like the whites supported him too.”
“In the last election, about 55% of the white voters voted for Mandela. But if the election were held today, the white voters would go for Mandela ten to one. It would be a landslide. He’s our national hero.”
“So you’d vote for him?”
“Of course! He’s the best thing that ever happened to this country. Everyone I know would vote for him!”
Wow. I thought about the fractured politics in America and began to envy the solidarity of South Africa.
But the solidarity of South Africa wasn’t manifesting itself on the highways. Everywhere I looked I saw trash lining the curbs. The country desperately needed an ‘Adopt a Highway’ program. Other than that, and the fact that there were a large number of blacks walking around, South Africa looked like any Western industrialized country. Johannesburg wasn’t especially attractive or unattractive. It was just a city, with miles of suburbs.
I was in Africa, but I might just as easily have been in St. Louis or Milwaukee. Certainly there were no elephants walking around, or vast herds of impala migrating across the highways. Deonne’s car was a late model BMW sedan, with a cell phone that rang every five minutes. He would answer it, and talk for awhile in Afrikaans, and then hang up. Afrikaans didn’t sound like any language I’d ever heard. Certainly not like Dutch or German. Perhaps it reminded me very slightly of “Romanche,” an ancient Swiss language that is a combination of German, Italian, and Latin. Afrikaans is a combination of Dutch and Huguenot French, with a healthy does of Zulu thrown in over the centuries.
Deonne had a couple of errands to do, so he dropped me at my hotel where I had a chance to take a shower. The hotel was a Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, located in a suburb called Sandton. There was nothing remarkable about anything I’d seen so far. Sandton could have passed for Rockport, Illinois. Afrikaans seemed to be the preferred language, in that it was the one people would start a conversation with, but they would switch effortlessly to English as soon as I did. The hotel staff seemed to be about half black, half white. No racial strife here, at least.
I’d asked Deonne by fax if I could have at least a couple of hours alone with him, before we started our meetings, so I could explain how much more there now was to Polygon than merely the trading network. In the last twelve months, Polygon had developed revolutionary concepts like Virtual Boutiques, TradeLock password protection for websites, Memo-Track credit systems, WebCenter specialty search engines, and so forth. Poor Deonne thought he was merely going to establish a clone of the Polygon Trading Network in South Africa. I needed him to launch half a dozen new products that had only recently been invented, and which required considerable explanation.
“So you see why it’s essential we make contact with the associations—especially the ones for the retail jewelers,” I explained. “We provide all their members with websites, which is only a maneuver that lets us implement the virtual boutique program. Meanwhile it’s critical that the associations themselves endorse and begin using the TradeLock password protection technology, and the whole thing occurs under a South African Jewelry WebCenter, operated by Polygon’s servers in Colorado.”
As I was talking I was demonstrating all these new technologies to Deonne with my laptop computer, and I was gratified to see that he was utterly in shock. “Jacques,” he said. “I am in awe of what Polygon has done in the last year. The breath of thinking here, the vision, is just incredible.”
“Will it work in South Africa?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “Our first meeting is with Claire Minett, who’s executive director of the Jewelry Council of South Africa. She also holds that same position for the Jewelry Association of South Africa, which represents the retail jewelers.
We met Clare Minnett at her office, an intelligent, charming woman who took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was a fairly ordinary menu, except for the special of the day: “Medallions of Ostrich,” which of course I had to order. “This will be my first Ostrich,” I explained to Claire, who was surprised.
“Your first Ostrich? Really? Well, by all means you should have it, but it’s quite common here, actually.”
So I’d found at least one thing different about Johannesburg.
I explained everything all over again to Claire, and after finishing my Ostrich it was fun to pull out my laptop and demonstrate concepts like Virtual Boutiques. Virtual Boutiques are a revolutionary concept in America. In South Africa I fancied myself as a visitor from outer space, demonstrating exotic technologies from the future.
We left that meeting with Claire’s full support and endorsement of our program, which is precisely what we needed. Our next meetings was with a jewelry manufacturer who also was president of the association representing jewelry manufacturers in South Africa.
To an extent I felt like a wind-up toy at these meetings. Deonne would sit me down in front of some important business-person, flip a switch, and I’d start talking about Virtual Boutiques and so forth. We’d gain the support of a key association, shake hands, and then head to the next meeting. This same process had taken me six years to accomplish in the United States. In South Africa, with Deonne’s help, it was to take 48 hours.
Dinner in Pretoria
By 5pm the adrenaline from being in a car driving on the wrong side of the road was wearing off, and fatigue was setting in. “I’m sure you’re very tired,” said Deonne, sympathetically. “But my wife and I were really hoping you could come to our home for dinner this evening. I’ll certainly understand if you’d rather just get back to the hotel to sleep.”
I’d have given anything to have headed back to the hotel to sleep, but I knew that would be the wrong decision. A person has many opportunities to sleep in life. Rarely are they invited to a private home for dinner in South Africa.
“I’m utterly exhausted,” I explained to Deonne. “But I would absolutely love to have dinner at your home. Is it far from here?”
“I live in Pretoria—about a thirty minute drive. Why don’t you sleep on the way?”
My next conscious thought was waking up as Deonne pulled into his driveway. It was a very nice neighborhood, and we were passing a little gate enclosing a nest of beautifully designed townhomes perched on a steep hill. One of these was Deonne’s, and I came awake quickly. Bokie, Deonne’s wife, came out to meet us. She was quite attractive—a middle-aged, young-looking blonde— vivacious, warm and friendly. Like Deonne, she spoke very fluent but heavily accented English. They conversed together effortlessly in Afrikaans.
One of Deonne’s two sons joined us. “This is Marcelle,” said Deonne. “He needs to work on his English so this is a good opportunity.
Marcelle was about seventeen years old, a rugged-looking, six-foot tall teenager. He spoke English quite well, actually, and was polite and well-mannered. Outside on the brick patio we had a view overlooking the hills of Pretoria, which were covered with a low scrub, much like the dry area west of Austin, Texas. There was no sign of a city here, but already I was liking Pretoria much more than Johannesburg.
It was a delightful evening and a fabulous dinner, and we ended up the best of friends, but I honestly remember almost nothing of what we talked about. Short-term memory is one of the first things to go when the brain is deprived of sleep. When Deonne dropped me at my hotel it was close to 11pm. Tomorrow we had more meetings planned and tomorrow night I was scheduled to deliver my first speech—at the Diamond Dealer’s Club in downtown Johannesburg. Fortunately tomorrow was another day and somehow I made it up to my room before collapsing on the bed. This time—even with residual adrenaline left sloshing around in my blood stream from the day’s activities—I did not need any kind of pill to go to sleep.
Speaking About The Internet
We had two meetings the next morning, where I did my wind-up act again, and then we met Paula Trollope for lunch. Paula was the new head of South Africa’s Diamond Promotion Service. She was very young—mid twenties I guessed—and stunningly beautiful: tall, slender, light brown hair. She had a curious last name, and I wondered if she knew what it meant. Trollope is an old English word for prostitute, but I sensed it would be impolite to bring that up. Paula was the first non-Afrikaner I’d met since my arrival. She was descended from English settlers, not Dutch.
“So can you speak Afrikaans?” I asked her, over lunch.
“I can speak it if I go slowly, but when an Afrikaner starts talking fast, I really can’t keep up.”
Paula was getting ready for a photo shoot being arranged with Cosmopolitan magazine in Cape Town next week.
“Once a year we do a big promotional piece in Cosmopolitan—all about diamond jewelry. Do you have that magazine in the states?”
“Well, we have a magazine called Cosmopolitan. I’m not sure it’s the same one.”
“This one’s a women’s magazine. It’s like Marie Claire.”
It had to be the same one, but perhaps there was a separate South African edition. I didn’t recall that DPS in the states had ever done anything with Cosmo. They would consider it beneath them, but I didn’t mention this. Paula had heard of Lynn Diamond, the head of DPS in the U.S., but admitted she’d never met her. (Lynn, I discovered later, had not yet heard of Paula.)
Paula was fascinated with the Virtual Boutiques, and by the end of the meal it appeared we had her support for having Polygon/South Africa handle the DPS/South Africa website. “I’ll have to clear it with London,” she explained, (meaning De Beers) “but if DPS in America is using you, I’m sure we’ll want to also.”
I couldn’t believe how well all these meetings were going. I reflected again on the fact that in two days I was accomplishing what had taken six years in the U.S. Paula asked me to prepare a proposal, showing costs, time line, etc., and get it to her as quickly as possible. That was always the nice thing about dealing with DeBeers. They never expected anything for free, and in fact seemed to love spending money.
“So where else will you be going on your trip?” she asked, and I gave her a quick synopsis of my itinerary.
“No visits to diamond mines?” she asked, surprised.
“Well, I haven’t really firmed up my plans after Cape Town. I’d like to see something of the other countries around here, maybe Botswana, Namibia, something like that.
“DeBeers has just opened up a new mine in Namibia,” said Paula, considering. “If you end up going to Namibia, I could probably arrange for you to have a tour of it. You really should see a diamond mine, you know…”
She said this admonishingly, as if I’d be guilty of mischief if I managed to leave Africa without seeing one. So we arranged that I’d give her a call on Monday to see what she could work out, and then it was on to our next meeting.
This time it was with a jewelry manufacturer at his guarded estate in the suburbs. “He’s the largest jewelry manufacturer in South Africa,” explained Deonne. And when we left his office it appeared we had another customer in the bag. Deonne, who had first learned about the Virtual Boutique and Tradelock concepts yesterday, was becoming as good as me at explaining them.
We arrived at the Diamond Dealers’ Club in downtown Johannesburg at 4:30pm, a full two hours before my speech. I felt that was cutting it a bit close, because certainly the LCD projector Deonne had rented would not be readily compatible with my IBM ThinkPad laptop, and I’d probably have to wake someone up in Colorado by phone to talk me through adjusting the settings. Yet by 4:45 I had the two working together perfectly and the Polygon/South Africa WebCenter was projecting beautifully against the wall of the dining room at the Diamond Dealers Club of Johannesburg. Rarely does an LCD projector work properly even in America, and I was astonished that for once I was encountering no technical problems.
Deonne had arranged for what I would call “heavy hors d’oeuvres” and an open bar, for which he’d felt justified in charging sixty Rand per attendee to hear my speech—about fifteen U.S. dollars. It seemed odd to me to charge money for an event that was supposed to promote a commercial enterprise: Polygon/South Africa, but then what did I know about South Africa?
In any case I had plenty of time to write my speech, and review my notes several times, as well as previewing the hors d’oeuvres. By six, people were trickling in and taking their seats. The room and general settings seemed not too different from the Diamond Dealer’s Club in New York. There were no elephant or zebra heads mounted on the wall, for example, as one might have expected in South Africa. It was simply a large room in a non-descript building, with plenty of tables and chairs. Getting into the building itself had not been easy, however. A very sophisticated security system was in effect, which had required us to produce passports and other forms of identification, sign our names, state our purposes, and so forth, in order to be allowed admittance.
At six thirty I launched into my speech, welcoming everyone, thanking everyone for attending, and then proceeding to show them the future of the jewelry industry according to Polygon as I flashed examples of wholesale diamond Internet sites on the wall from around the world. It was obvious that the Internet was going to revolutionize the diamond and jewelry industry, but then I went on to explain Polygon/South Africa, and how it was going to provide everyone with the tools they needed to not merely stay competitive, but to actually wipe out their competitors, and by the end of the speech it seemed that everyone was fairly interested. Questions were lively and continued for almost half an hour, by which point Deonne stood up and brought the evening to a close. Several diamond dealers clustered around me afterwards, continuing the questions, and overall I felt it had gone quite well.
I slept until ten a.m. the next morning.
Weekend in Cape Town
A certain stress had been creeping up on me and the longer I delayed the decision the more intense it became. A wiser, more organized person would have resolved things before leaving home, but it was just my nature to wait until the last minute. Here I was in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was Friday morning, and I had no business meetings to attend until Monday night in Cape Town. And after the Cape Town meeting, I had nothing planned until the following Sunday night, when I would board a plane for Australia. In short, I had several days of holiday at my disposal, followed by five more days. And I was in Africa.
That was the point. If I’d been in Fargo, North Dakota there would have been no stress at all. A good book, maybe a couple of movies at the local mall, and I could count myself fulfilled in Fargo. But Africa? Sometime before Monday night I had to get myself to Cape Town, but Cape Town was over a thousand miles away. I’d have to fly there, obviously. But if I was going to fly those kinds of distances, there were many options. From Johannesburg, a radius of a thousand miles includes Kenya, Zanzibar, Lake Victoria, the Congo, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, Botswana, Zambia. Heck, the headwaters of the Nile River were probably less than a thousand miles away. Going to the local mall was out of the question.
I knew my girlfriend from high school worked as a Unicef officer in Nairobi, Kenya. I didn’t want to go to Nairobi, but it would be fun to call her up and say hi. I worked my way through the hotel switchboard, and Nairobi directory assistance, until I had Unicef on the phone in Kenya. But they had no record of a Joanna Van Gerpen. Obviously she’d been transferred. Or had lied about her job, like most of us probably had at our high school reunion.
Where I really wanted to go was Zanzibar—an exotic island off the coast of Tanzania. I was just rolling up my sleeves to start making travel plans to get to Zanzibar when the phone rang. It was Deonne calling from his car.
“I’ve taken care of everything through my travel agent,” he explained. “You’re booked into the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Hotel in Capetown, and you’re catching a plane today at 2:00pm. I’m on my way now to pick you up.”
I’d asked Deonne for advice on my travel plans and he’d obviously gone further than I expected. In truth it wouldn’t hurt to have some time to relax in Cape Town before my speech, and no doubt it was a nice city.
But Deonne had organized more than that.
“And after Cape Town,” he continued, “you’re going to Victoria Falls. You’ll have two days at a Game Lodge in Botswana, a two-day canoe safari, and free time in Vic Falls itself.”
Wow! That sounded pretty good.
Victoria Falls, to anyone who has studied a map, lies deep in the middle of Africa. It was discovered by Dr. Livingstone in the 1880’s, and named after (then) Queen Victoria. Among people who keep track of such things, the three primary waterfalls in the world are Niagara Falls in New York, Angel Falls in Venezuela, and Victoria Falls in Africa. I’d seen Niagara at age 11. A few years ago I’d visited friends in Venezuela, and we’d flown a Cessna 206 from Maracay to Canaima deep into the rain forest (where the movie “Jungle 2 Jungle” was filmed) for a view of Angel Falls—the highest waterfall in the world. To complete the triple crown I really needed to see Victoria, reputedly the most beautiful falls of them all. But I could worry about all that later. For now, apparently, I was heading to Cape Town.
“The weather can be very nasty at the Cape, this time of year,” warned Deonne earlier that morning, and his words were prophetic. The British Airways 727 descended into the clouds and the ride became quite rough as we began our approach. Edging lower, fleeting glimpses of ocean could be seen—angry, dark water, blustering with white caps. Foam was shooting off the tops of the waves.
A particularly hard bump caused a round of squeals from a few passengers, including me, possibly. But now that we were below the cloud deck I began to relax. The plane was on final approach, gear was down, and the pilot could certainly, from this position, see the runway. The wind would make the landing mildly difficult, but not dangerous. And I knew the turbulence would bother only us passengers, not the crew and certainly not the plane.
The 727 smashed firmly onto the runway, and I remembered reading somewhere that it’s just not possible to land a 727 smoothly. This landing would add weight to that argument. Nonetheless I was as grateful as the other passengers to be safely on the ground. Our collective worry could now be focused on such issues as whether the luggage would arrive, the availability of ground transportation, regret over not bringing an umbrella, etc.
Yet I was jarred back to a state of tension shortly after disembarking when I passed a newsstand and the headline from the afternoon paper screamed: “Cape Braces For Hurricane!”
Even Deonne hadn’t expected a hurricane.
And a hurricane would explain the rough landing. Wait a minute. Did Cape Town have hurricanes? The latitude seemed a bit high for tropical storms, but then we were in the Southern hemisphere and that might make a difference. But wasn’t it winter here in South Africa? You can’t have a hurricane in winter, can you? A blizzard perhaps. Not a hurricane. Although it was certainly raining ferociously.
I decided I was excited to be here despite the weather. Cape Town is reputed to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and from a geographics standpoint, it is one of the most significant.
At the extreme southern tip of the huge African continent, Cape Town occupies the spot Prince Henry the Navigator kept trying to send his ships to find in the thirteenth century: the point from which one could turn northeast and strike out for the Indies. Henry never found it, but Vasco da Gama did, making the Portuguese the real discoverers of the Cape (again, that’s from a white perspective.)
But other than being the place that you have to get around, the Cape was ignored by Europeans for another 200 years until the Dutch decided to establish a replenishing station there for their East India Company ships on their way to and from Java (in present day Indonesia).
Leaving the airport and observing the rain-soaked countryside from the back seat of a taxi cab, I was half a mind to replenish my supplies and head on to Java myself. You only have one chance to receive a first impression, and my first impression of Cape Town could be summed up in one word: Wet.
Sheets of rain blew horizontally across the highway, and low, wispy clouds scurried about. The countryside was soaked, and getting more so by the minute.
The road we were on was a modern, U.S-style divided freeway, although the fact that we were driving on the left hand side of it confirmed that we weren’t in America. The terrain was generally flat, yet ahead n the distance I could see steep hills rising up precipitously into the cloud. I knew that the dominant physical characteristic of Cape Town is Table Mountain, a large, flat-topped escarpment rising up behind the city, and often commented upon by passengers disembarking from ships over the last several hundred years. My first view of it would be limited, obviously.
Here, coming up on the left, was something else interesting. It was one of those strange South African institutions I learned later are called “squatters’ villages”-mile after mile of rusty corrugated tin shacks abutting the highway, patched up here and there with cardboard, flattened-out polyethylene milk cartons, and other materials reclaimed from a modern throw-away society. These villages were not tidy. In fact, they were so debris-strewn one might assume that here was a culture which worshipped clutter. Here was a culture that had never invented—or been exposed to—a wastebasket or garbage can. Or, put another way, their world was one big garbage can.
I found it hugely depressing, and repellent. I could recall seeing something similar only once, in the island cultures of Micronesia in the Western Pacific. And of course in the streets of Manhattan during a sanitation workers’ strike.
It would not be accurate to call these squatters’ villages “slums.” They seemed far worse then slums, for there was a deliberate apathy overlaying them, an utter unwillingness on the part of the inhabitants to lift even a finger to improve the surroundings. It was as if the population had surrendered utterly to chaos. These villages were teeming with population, which I could see even from the vantage point of a speeding taxi in the rain. It would not have been difficult—if there’d been the will—to pick up all the trash in the whole village in the course of a couple of hours, if everyone pitched in. And in any kind of well-organized society such activity would be routinely planned. Of course if there’d been that kind of ethic, the situation would not have gotten so bad in the first place.
Yet there was a contradiction here, too. As I looked closer, I could see that the shacks built of pounded tin and flattened milk bottles had required ingenuity and perseverance to create. Young children playing in their backyard might spend a whole summer producing one of these structures as a “club house” or pretend fort. How could so much energy go into the building of the structure, and then no energy at all go into picking up the trash around it?
Everyone in this village was black. Perhaps that was to be expected, considering I was in South Africa. There was certainly a deep cultural phenomenon at work here, but before I had time to unravel it, we were past the village and well into the outskirts of Cape Town.
The rain had lightened considerably, it was late afternoon, and the clouds were as low as ever. Being winter, the day would soon turn to night. The cab was now skirting the flanks of the steep hills, and I noticed that the city overflowed onto the lower reaches of these hills much as the buildings do in San Francisco or Honolulu. The comparison to those two cities was underscored as at last the downtown section of Cape Town appeared, and I could see tall, white buildings gracefully ascending steep hills and valleys. Off to my right, by contrast, was the port section of the city, and I noticed several small freighters tied alongside the wharves, and various warehouses, crane derricks, and other harbor accouterments scattered about.
I guessed that it was towards the port area that the cab was taking me, for my hotel, the “Albert and Victoria Harborside Hotel,” was obviously near the water. And so it proved. The city of Cape Town has invested considerably in its waterfront section, transforming it into a very upscale, attractive area, nicely mingling renovated historic buildings with completely modern structures that nonetheless follow the architectural style of the centuries-old Dutch maritime buildings.
The Albert and Victoria was itself a renovated brick warehouse, only three stories high, with an open, spacious, laminated wood-beam interior. Everywhere possible the natural brick and wood materials had been preserved. Nearby were quaint, tasteful shops offering antiques, natural ice cream, boutique-ey fashion, and the like. It was all utterly charming, and even the light rain that was still falling seemed to merely highlight the dreamy “glimpse of the past” aura being exuded.
A friendly, blonde Dutch girl greeted me behind the reception desk, but she confessed to being German, not Dutch. Still, I could pretend she was Dutch. Her name was Ingrid, for pete’s sake.
Since I’d decided to spend my weekend in Cape Town—passing up exotic places like Zanzibar—I was feeling considerable pressure to justify my decision.
“First time in Cape Town?” asked Ingrid
“Very much my first time,” I confessed. “And I only have two days to learn the area. What does one do in Cape Town?” I asked.
“What kind of things do you like to do?”
“Anything outdoors! I’ve been in meetings in Johannesburg for two days. I need to get outside.”
“Try this,” said Ingrid, handing me a little color brochure. “Most of the guests at this hotel wouldn’t be interested, but you might see something in here you like.”
I glanced through the brochure and immediately felt the adrenaline kick in.
They weren’t talking about strolls in the park downtown, or a walking tour of the waterfront. The table of contents offered the following choices:
Great White Shark Scuba Adventure
Wine Country Bicycle Tour
My God, I only had two days! How was I going to fit it all in? And if I couldn’t fit it all in, how would I decide which thing I didn’t want to do? I scanned the list more carefully, knowing in my soul I probably couldn’t do everything on the list in just two days. I would have to be selective. OK, I could pass on the helicopter tour. Been there, done that, in Hawaii. And I doubted a helicopter tour of Cape Town would be more exciting than flying over hot lava.
Ocean sailing? Once you’re out on the water, how can you really tell you’re in Africa? You can go ocean sailing anywhere there’s an ocean. In fact, as I studied the list more carefully, I realized that the same could be said of several of the items. OK, I could cross off windsurfing and parasailing for the same reason. Mountain biking would be fun, because it would be completely different terrain from Colorado. The bushman safari? Well, I was going to be doing the safari thing next week, and in more safari-like country (Botswana). Hang gliding I’ve vowed I would never do. Too dangerous. Rock climbing can be fun, but rocks are rocks. So far, so good. I’d narrowed the choice down to Mountain Biking, Penguin Encounter, Great White Shark Scuba Adventure, Micro Light flying, and the wine country bicycle tour. Now I had a reasonable hope of squeezing it all into two days.
“This is a good list,” I said to Ingrid. “But how do I make these things happen?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “No one’s ever actually wanted to do them before.”
Together we studied the little brochure more carefully, and finally discovered a phone number at the back that you call to organize any of the activities.
“You can call from your room, or I could call for you, from here,” offered Ingrid.
I would have enjoyed Ingrid’s help, but it was unfair to ask her to play secretary. I climbed the stairs to the third floor, and found my way to my own room. So eager was I to arrange all my weekend activities that I barely had time to notice how stunning the room itself was. Several dozen square yards of beautiful polished oak floor spread out before me, graced with oriental carpets, elegant potted plants, and a stunning four poster bed. The walls were natural brick, and the ceiling was twice normal height. But the eye took all this in with barely a glance for across the room were several tall, roman-arched windows looking out at, at…
My God, there was a freighter parked nearly inside my room! I hurried over, threw open the windows, and stared at the scene. The water came to within twenty feet of the hotel. This was actually one of the original harbor warehouses, and all about were ships—real freighters! And towering over it all, was—at last—Table Mountain, rising straight up over the city in all its flat-topped glory.
Cape Town was looking better and better.
But it was after six by the time I was able to call the phone number from the activities brochure, and I was not surprised there was no answer. I’d call first thing in the morning. That night I explored the Cape Town waterfront, discovering the fabulous, modern “Harborside Mall” which sprawled over several acres and was reminiscent of New Orlean’s Riverwalk Mall. Truly, this did not seem like a foreign country. Most of this whole area seemed to be occupied by English-speaking whites, although there were blacks here and there, in about the same proportion one might find at a suburban mall in America. I knew that historically Cape Town was more English, while Johannesburg was largely occupied by the Afrikaner Dutch descendants.
“Love, Rage, and Cappuccino,” said the sign over a coffee shop inside the mall, and I ate there that night, finding myself entranced by the name. I wasn’t feeling love, or rage, or for that matter any desire for cappuccino, but I enjoyed watching the others around me to see which of these emotions I might be able to detect. Unfortunately no fist-fights broke out and there were no couples openly displaying affection. Everyone was too busy drinking the cappuccino
“Well, let’s see what we can do,” said the man on the other end of the line at eight the next morning. He seemed almost surprised at the phone call. “Where did you say you got this number? Oh, the little pamphlet we drop off at the hotels. Yes, of course. Now, which activity did you have in mind?”
“Several actually. I’d like to do the Mountain Biking, Penguin Encounter, Great White Shark Scuba Adventure, Micro Light flying, and the wine country bicycle tour.”
“Yes, well, let’s take a look at that, shall we? It’s the wrong season for the penguin encounter, unfortunately, so that’s out. Mountain biking has already left for the day, and that’s not on for tomorrow. Let me make a couple of phone calls and get right back to you on the rest of it.”
A few minutes later the phone rang. “OK, here’s where we are. They only do the Great White Shark dive when they have enough people signed up. I’ve given them your name and number, and they’ll call you if it looks like they’ll be going out. That’s quite interesting, actually. You’re lowered down in a metal cage and the Great Whites are all around you, but can’t get in. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on that one. Now I’m sorry to say that the wine country bicycle tour was canceled for today, but that’s not really a problem. If you have a car, you can just go up there around Stellenbosch and rent a bicycle and go around on your own.”
He had me write down a couple of phone numbers for bike rentals.
So that leaves Micro Light flying. You want to get in touch with a man named Andre, who runs the operation. Tell him I referred you, and he’ll give you a discount. Plus he pays us a commission of course, ha ha!”
I called the number, and soon had Andre on the phone.
“Microlight flying? Yes, well, weather’s a bit rough today don’t you think? Should be better tomorrow. Why don’t you call me at this time tomorrow and we’ll see how it looks.”
I hung up the phone, disappointed. No mountain biking, no penguins, no Great Whites, no Microlights. After all that planning, I was still stuck in a hotel room in Cape Town. It was time to take matters in my own hands.
The Vineyards of Stellenbosch
Back at the front desk I asked Ingrid to organize a rental car for me. And while that was coming together I returned to the mall and bought a beautiful highway map of Cape Province, South Africa, including blow-ups of the area around Cape Town itself.
Ingrid helped me with the paperwork on the car, and when we got to the decision on the insurance, I said: “I’ll take all of it I can buy. I mean, they drive on the wrong side of the road here. What are my chances of avoiding a collision?”
“Really, you’re very brave,” she commented. “I’ve been here six months and I still haven’t tried it! Do you think you’ll be all right?”
“Well, I wasn’t able to do the Great White Shark scuba thing, so trying to drive a car around South Africa on the wrong side of the road is probably the next best choice—you know—in terms of experiencing sheer terror.”
She helped me determine the easiest way to get to Stellenbosch, which was about forty minutes away. Soon I was back on the freeways, heading out of Cape Town, this time at the wheel of my own car. Actually, after 24 hours in London and two days in Johannesburg, it was seeming almost normal to be driving in the left hand lane. The key is simply to never trust your instincts, which will kill you if you let them.
The metropolitan area, Cape Town suburbs, and squatters villages finally gave way to pastoral countryside, as I headed north and then east, around the backside of Table Mountain. In the distance were more mountains, or at least large hills. I found the proper exit from the freeway, and began following a two lane road north into the South African wine country, heading towards Stellenbosch.
I knew all about Stellenbosch, because it figured prominently in Michener’s novel. Michener has a regrettable tendency to go on and on about specific architectural elements in his stories. Flowery descriptions of architecture tend to put me to sleep. Trying to describe architecture with words is about as futile as describing music with words. Both need to be experienced, not described. However in this case I was grateful. All about me I was now seeing the very farm buildings Michener had spoken of. I won’t make the same mistake he did, and try to reduce them to words, except to say they were white, and tile-roofed, and of Dutch/Huguenot heritage. And surrounding them were vast, endless fields of grapes. It was beautiful, rolling, lush countryside, and it was easy to understand how the God-fearing Dutch settlers must have taken one look at the place and determined instantly that God had intended that the land be used for vineyards, which is essentially what happened.
As I approached Stellenbosch I began seeing the wineries themselves. These large estates were tucked back into the hills, generally at the ends of winding roads cut gracefully through long rows of grape vines. Most of these, I knew, were open to the public, being on something called the “Stellenbosch Winery Tour.” It was quite the rage, apparently. Cape Towners drive up to the Stellenbosch area for the weekend and “winery-hop” the fifty or sixty Stellenbosch wineries, enjoying the free samples of each. Many come in buses on organized tours, thus addressing the problem, no doubt, of a designated driver.
I came at last to the town itself and it was very pleasant. White tile-roofed homes and buildings were placed about with Dutch precision. Lawns were carefully manicured. Leaves had been properly raked. A large square, actually more of a rectangle, claimed the center of town, and was really nothing more than a big field of cut grass which served adequately as a low-budget park. Stellenbosh itself occupied a very pleasant, tree-filled valley, tucked up against low but rugged mountains just to the west of town. There was really nothing in Stellenbosch that would keep a person from thinking they were in Holland—with one exception. Almost everyone walking around Stellenbosch was coloured.
Not black, coloured. In America we think of African-Americans as black, period, end of story. In South Africa there are two types of blacks: coloureds, and blacks. The blacks really are black: blacker than we’re used to seeing in America where so much white blood has been inter-mingled. The blacks in South Africa are the real natives: the Xhosa and Zulu tribes people, mostly.
The coloureds are completely different. The coloureds are generally a mixture of black, Indonesian, Indian, and white, intermingled no doubt in varying degrees, but all sharing a very similar physical appearance. The coloureds have distinct facial characteristics that would identify them regardless of their skin color. Oddly enough, and for reasons I never learned, Stellenbosch on this particular Saturday had been almost completely taken over by coloureds. There were very few blacks or whites visible anywhere.
Desperate for some exercise after so many business meetings, plane trips, and car rides, I rented a bicycle in Stellenbosch and headed west into the mountains. Leaving the town center, I passed through elegant neighborhoods of even more manicurred lawns, more raked leaves, and more Dutch architecture. The cars that passed me all contained whites, and if I saw anyone working in their yard, or setting on a porch bench, they—also—were white. South Africa was no longer an apartheid society, but it was going to take generations to make it an integrated one. From what I’d seen, the whites, blacks, and coloureds simply didn’t mix.
I found more wineries west of Stellenbosch, as well as many small farms, but even these gave out as the road wound deeper into the mountains. The good weather gave out also and it began raining. Biking through rural South Africa in the rain, with my rain parka and rain pants, was fun for awhile but only for awhile. Admitting defeat, I finally turned around and coasted downhill back into Stellenbosch. Wanting to keep the bicycle at least another day, I took it apart and was able to fit it into the back seat of my tiny rental car.
Now I had only one more thing to do to make my visit to South Africa’s wine country complete: visit a winery. I had many to choose from as I drove back east, away from the mountains and finally made my selection more or less randomly. Speaking as one who more often than not enjoys his wine straight from a box, I had no illusions of being a sophisticated, discerning customer. One winery would be as good as another, and no doubt one wine as good as the next.
Even so I chose poorly.
Half a dozen cars and one tour bus occupied the parking lot of the winery I selected at last. This looked encouraging, and—following signs saying “wine-tasting” I walked down a flagstone path leading to an ancient stone and wood barn. Gingerly I opened the barn door and found myself in a kind of ante-chamber. Another door, a few feet away, ushured me into a room of complete blackness. I could see nothing, but all around were low voices and people murmuring. As my eyes adjusted slowly, I now saw I was in a large room with wooden tables and benches, and against one wall was a high counter. Behind this were people serving samples of wine. A few candles sputtered unconvincingly here and there on the tables, giving off only enough light to generate shadows amidst the blackness. It was almost impossible to see anything, and I could not imagine why the room had to be so dark. Perhaps—after a full day of touring the wineries—everyone is so drunk and behaving so ludicrously that identities are best kept masked. Although this group seemed to be controlling itself in the darkness.
Stumbling over a low bench and knocking my knee against a hitherto unseen barstool, I made my way to the counter. My plan was to take one sip of wine, thus enabling me thereafter to claim that I’d gone on a wine-tasting tour of Stellenbosch, and then return promptly to Cape Town. I waited at the bar for one of the shadowy figures behind it to notice me, but five minutes went by and I realized I was being deliberately ignored. Others nearby were filling out little forms with pencils, although how they could read anything on them in the absence of light was beyond me. But appareantly that’s how it worked: you found one of these forms, checked off which wine of several dozen you wished to sample, and then one of the bartenders would take the form and bring you a tiny glass of that wine.
I could not have cared less which wine I sampled. But I did manage to pick up an empty form. I checked something on it randomly and tried to hand it to the bartenders. They ignored me for another five minutes, despite my attempts to be noticed in the blackness, until finally I reached out and actually grabbed one by the shoulder. This was getting ridiculous.
“Excuse me, could I try this wine please?” I wasn’t sure if that was the proper way to phrase the request. No doubt the true veterans of the Stellenbosch wine circuit have their own jargon. But I wasn’t interested in learning it. Just one damn sip of wine so I could get out of this depressing coal-bin of a room…
“You with the group?” asked the bartender.
“Uh, what group?”
“Sorry, we’re closed. You’re not with the group, I can’t help you.”
Now I was getting mad.
“Look, I just want to sample one of your wines. Can’t I try just one?”
Every where else along the counter, people were being handed samples of wine. It wasn’t like it was a difficult request.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” he said brusquely, the actions of everyone else in the room belying his words. As soon as he walked away I reached over the counter, grabbed a clean glass, picked up the nearest opened bottle of wine, splashed some into the glass, and then deftly retreated to the far side of the room. I don’t know why I was nervous. It wasn’t like anyone might have seen me in the darkness. I could have guzzled the whole bottle right there at the counter and been invisible doing it.
The wine tasted OK. Perhaps even it was good. One thing was certain: you couldn’t judge it by its color—at least not in that room. I fled the unfriendly Stellenbosh winery, and the privileged group of which I was so apparently not a part, and made my way swiftly back to Cape Town. Ingrid, at least, was glad to see me, and impressed I’d not crashed the car while driving on the wrong side of the road—especially after having toured the wineries.
Learning To Fly A Micro-light
I reached Andre the next morning, and he gave me directions for driving up to the Bostich airport—about an hour outside Cape Town—where he kept the micro-lights.
As a pilot, I have the unusual distinction of being very highly trained, and trained in a broad range of aircraft, yet not especially experienced in any of them, and thus not especially competent. For example, most private pilots will fly for years—and thus gain valuable experience—before going for their Commercial License. And only sometime thereafter will they consider the huge step to an Instrument Rating, and possibly from there a Multi-Engine rating. Yet I’d earned my private pilot license at age eighteen, and at nineteen I had my instrument rating, multi-engine rating, and commercial license. Since then I’d received training in sailplanes (gliders), float planes (my favorite), and even had some hot air balloon time. I’d once been given the controls of a Lear Jet for a few minutes, flying at 35,000 feet, at close to Mach 1. And my relative Bruce Hallock (formerly Lyndon Johnson’s pilot), had let me practice take-offs and landings in a huge Beech twin-engine tail-dragger—a craft not much smaller than a DC-3. My brother in law, a captain in the Air Force, once gave me an hour of instruction in a flight simulator for a T-38 Talon jet fighter (the plane used to portray Soviet fighters in the movie Top Gun) which I succeeded in crashing thirty or forty times before I almost got the hang of it. I’d been trained to fly at night, in bad weather, and in the mountains—using the mountain air currents to take a plane higher than it’s supposed to be able to go. I’d been trained in aerobatics, and used to love performing chandelles, lazy eights, hammerhead turns, and—most exhilarating of all—spins. (The plane points straight at the ground and spins like a top, dropping 2,000 feet a minute.) At age 22 I’d been hired to—among other things— fly U.S. Senate candidate David Stanley around Iowa, in a variety of aircraft and in all kinds of weather conditions—serving in the triple role of personal pilot, press secretary, and Campaign Coordinator. And after the campaign I’d been offered a job as a co-pilot for a commuter airline based in Minneapolis, which operated Cessna 402’s, the plane featured in the TV show “Wings”.
I’d turned down the job and started Polygon instead, but it had been a difficult decision.
Yet there was something very ironic about all that flying skill: I’m afraid of heights. My fear of heights came late in life, as did my allergy to cats, and I know precisely when it happened. Once in Michigan a group of my friends who ran a construction company—I thought they were my friends—had me sit in a canvas sling which they hoisted seventy feet in the air with their crane. This was supposed to be really funny. They thought it was even funnier when they begin swinging the crane back and forth through the air, making the canvas sling fly around almost uncontrollably. I was fairly certain I was going to die, but the construction workers had a great laugh about it. And of course I had to pretend I’d enjoyed it when I got back to Earth. Yet ever since then I’ve been afraid of heights.
Now a certain fear of heights is a logical and desirable human emotion. But there have been times when I’ve been absolutely, unreasoningly, terrified of heights—terrified almost to the point of panic. The last time this happened was when I was in a hot air balloon, and the balloon pilot decided to ascend a couple of thousand feet up. There I was, hanging in this little wicker basket, two thousand feet in the air. I freaked. No one knew I was freaking. I kept it to myself. But I’ve had no desire to ride in a hot air balloon ever since.
I once read an article that discussed how people who experience fear of heights nonetheless don’t have a problem inside an airplane—even an airliner at 35,000 feet. The reason, explained the author, was because the human brain—looking out the window of a jetliner and seeing the ground far below—simply makes no connection to the ground. The view from the window is like looking at a TV screen: intellectually interesting, but not physically engaging. By contrast someone standing at the top of a high cliff, and looking down, immediately perceives a connection to the ground far below. They sense height and can become terrified.
In any case I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I drove to the Bostich airport. Flying an airplane was completely different from hovering in an open-air wicker basket. I’ve never been afraid of heights flying an airplane.
The weather was a much bigger concern as I exited from the SA1 freeway and worked my way northwest towards Bostich. A low cloud layer wrestled with the morning sun for supremacy, and it was anyone’s guess which would win. These were rain clouds, and occasionally they would prove that point by dripping water all over my windshield. No harm done if they went away, but as long as they were here it did not look like a good day for flying. I guessed it was a 75% chance the lesson would be canceled.
As I drove over the lush, green South African pasture land—reminiscent of the hilly sheep country southwest of Melbourne, Australia—I began to worry about finding the airport. Airports are typically very easy to find, but this one was proving elusive. I was completely at ease driving on the wrong side of the road by now, and it was actually quite a lovely day for a drive, if not a flight. But I was already supposed to be there, and the directions just weren’t corresponding to actual conditions. I zigged and zagged over a fifty square mile area before finally discovering a convenience store on the outskirts of one small town and asking directions.
It’s true men are extremely reluctant to ask directions in a situation like this, but women are wrong to think it’s simple male pride. Actually it’s very complicated male pride. It’s not so much that we don’t want to ask, it’s that we’re almost certain the person we ask won’t have a clue, and thus we’ll be enmeshed in the awkward social situation of asking a favor of someone unable to grant it. Worse, they’ll try to grant it. They’ll try to figure out how to get you from here to there, and will go on and on, getting themselves—and you—more confused by the minute, before finally throwing up their hands and admitting defeat. So not only will you have to graciously and forgivingly accept their apology for not being able to help after all, but you’ll waste valuable time going through the whole frustrating process when you could be roaring over the countryside seeking to find your destination by process of elimination. And that is why men don’t like to ask directions.
But there was more to it in this case. Everyone I saw in the area was black, and so far in South Africa I’d had almost no encounter with blacks, excepting only a few at the reception desk at the Holiday Inn in Johannesburg. But these weren’t Holiday Inn kinds of blacks. These were apartheid kinds of blacks. These people were clothed in colorful cottony material, and they carried water jugs on their heads. It was absolutely certain that they would not speak either English or Afrikaner. These were Zulu or Xhosa tribes people. (There are twelve official languages in South Africa.) These were would-be warriors who might easily pull out their assegi spears and stab to death any arrogant white oppressor foolish enough to ask one of them for directions.
Did they even know that Nelson Mandela had been elected president? Would they care? And even if I could communicate with them without being slaughtered, what was the chance that they would know the location of a small airfield? All that, plus of course my male pride, kept me from asking directions until I was over an hour past my scheduled flight time, and still no airport in sight.
The 7-11 convenience store appeared like a sign from God—a finger reaching down from heaven amidst a sea of despair. Inside were nice, friendly, English-speaking white people. I felt hopelessly racist to be glad to be dealing with white people. But I was, and they were able to give me directions to the airfield. Arriving at the entrance, I realized I’d passed it several times in my wandering but had failed to notice the two-track dirt road heading off into the trees, or the rusty metal sign casually mentioning Bostich Aerodrome.
Several hundred yards into the forest the trees thinned and several corrugated tin buildings appeared. All was quiet and seemingly uninhabited. I parked my car, got out, and walked around one of the buildings. Here I discovered a man wrestling with a tiny single-engine tail-dragger airplane. The words “Bush Baby” were painted on the fuselage, and the man was trying to pull it into the hangar.
“Andre?” I asked.
“Yes, you’re Jack then?”
I didn’t correct his pronunciation. I’ve learned it’s easier if I can hide occasionally under an easily-pronounced name.
“How’s the weather?” I asked, certain the whole event was about to be canceled by rain showers.
Andre glanced skywards. “Beautiful day. Absolutely beautiful day for flying.”
I glanced up as well, and it did seem the clouds were beginning a cautious retreat. Perhaps there was hope.
“So,” said Andre, “What would you like to do? We can take my Bush Baby up for a spin, or we can try the micro-light.”
The Bush Baby was cute, but it was too similar to the scores of single-engine planes I’d flown years ago. The whole point of the thing was to try flying a micro-light.
A micro-light, I assumed, was what in America we call an “ultra-light.” An ultra-light is a regular airplane, with regular airplane controls, but it resembles something one of the Wright brothers might have invented. The pilot is perched on a tiny seat, opened to the air, and the wings, fuselage, tail, and so forth are wired together out of lightweight, transparent fabric, and thin connecting rods. Ultra-lights usually are built from “kits”, and can be dismantled and transported easily. A National Geographic story on a kayak expedition in Iceland highlighted two ultra-lights the group took with them, so as to scout the rivers ahead of the kayaks. When not in use, the ultra-lights were taken apart and carried in Avon river-rafts.
Flying an ultra-light was on my list of “must try” life experiences, and this would probably be my only chance ever.
Andre asked if I’d had any flight experience, and was surprised to learn I was a licensed commercial pilot.
“I’ve been working on an instrument rating myself,” he said, with a certain new-found respect which perhaps I only imagined. “Can’t seem to find time to complete it though.”
“These days,” I agreed, “I can’t seem to find time to fly at all. Other than a float plane, I haven’t flown anything for ten years.
“No micro-light experience?” he asked.
“None. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well, you’re going to love it. There’s nothing like a micro-light. It’s pure flying.
I followed him through a corrugated tin door, into his little office, and he proceeded to outfit me with a one-piece, insulated jumpsuit. That was probably a good idea, as the micro-light was probably open to the air and would be a bit chilly. He had large snowmobile style gloves for himself but unfortunately had only thin cotton gloves for me.
We walked out the other door of his office and into the airplane hangar itself. Here was an interesting collection of aircraft. A tiny “gyro-copter” was the first thing I noticed—kind of a miniature, open-air helicopter. A couple of very small “bush-baby” style tail draggers were there. And over in the far corner were some large hang-gliders. Actually, they were very odd looking hang-gliders because the frame suspended below the wing held a tiny seat, and behind the tiny seat was a miniature lawnmower-size engine, and a rear-facing wooden propeller. They were powered hang-gliders—something I never knew existed.
The one thing I didn’t see was an ultra-light. Andre walked over to the sliding door, opened it fully, grasped the nearest hang-glider, and began pulling it out of the hangar.
“Uh, Andre,” I began hesitantly, “this isn’t the ultra-light we’re flying is it?”
“We’re not flying an ultra-light. We’re flying a micro-light. This is a micro-light.”
“I thought they were the same thing. I thought you just had a different word for it here in South Africa.”
“Oh, not at all. I also fly ultra-lights but that’s a completely different kind of flying. An ultra-light is just a very small airplane. A micro-light is a hang-glider with an engine—not even similar. The micro-light is much more fun. You’re going to love it.”
I wasn’t so sure. I eyed the craft suspiciously. It was definitely a hang-glider. There was the boomerang-shaped wing of colorful fabric common to all hang-gliders. Below it was the large metal-rod triangle that you hold onto while you’re hang-gliding. The only difference from a real hang-glider was a metal pole that descended straight down from the wing, and which the entire seat/engine/propeller assembly was attached to. The pole obviously connected to the wing with a universal joint that let the triangle wing move independently of the rod.
The dual-seat assembly was identical to what one sees on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle: about two feet of black vinyl, very narrow, and the back half about six inches higher than the front. Two people might just fit on it if they were kind of squished together.
The whole thing looked like it would fall apart as soon as it was a few feet in the air—crumple like a fortune-cookie and crash on take-off.
Andre began untying a little duffel bag attached to the rear seat with bungee cords.
“Just got back night before last from a ten day trip to Namibia, and I haven’t had a chance to unpack yet.”
“You flew this thing to Namibia? From here?”
The Namibian border was five hundred miles away
“Yeah, it was great. There were four micro-lights in the group. We’d land wherever we could find fifty feet of flat ground. We flew over these herds of antelope. Totally freaked them out. Camped on the ground. Drank beer. What a great trip…”
Well, that was reassuring in a sense. If this hanglider/lawnmower/Harley-Davidson contraption could make it to Namibia and back it had to be safer than it looked.
This was important. Before I’d left on my trip Derry had said “Promise that you’ll behave yourself.” By this she’d not meant “Don’t have an affair with some woman you pick-up.” She’d meant “Don’t do anything dangerous.” Derry remembered earlier trips where I’d traded currency illegally on the black market in the Soviet Union and provoked the attention of KGB agents, went scuba diving alone at night in the Netherland Antilles and lost my dive light sixty feet under water, flew a single-engine Cessna across 300 miles of uninhabited rain forest in Venezuela, risked death riding a bicycle in Tiananman Square in Beijing, video-taped hot lava flowing out of a volcano while suspended fifty feet above it in a helicopter in Hawaii, and similar activities that she deemed “dangerous.”
So I’d promised I’d behave myself in South Africa. Flying a hang-glider would violate that promise, obviously. But flying a hang-glider with an engine? A hang-glider with an engine had to be safer than one without. The more I thought about that argument, the more valid it seemed.
I just hoped Derry would buy it.
Andre had me lean against the front of the frame, while he started the motor. Obviously if I hadn’t been leaning against it the micro-light would have begun moving as soon as the rear-facing propeller started spinning. The lawnmower engine came to life briskly enough after Andre spun the propeller manually a few times. Then he walked around to the front and held the frame while instructing me to hop in the back seat and fasten the seat belt. There was a tiny radio headset which he had me place over my ears. This was to allow us to talk to each other over the noise of the lawnmower.
He jumped onto the front half of the seat, and the little craft started moving slowly over the grass. Andre fiddled with some knobs on the radio which was secured by metal bands to the frame, and suddenly I heard his voice in my ears.
“Got your seat belt fastened?” he asked. I checked again and confirmed that it was. The throttle control for the tiny motor was a miniature lever that operated a cable which connected back to the engine. He moved it forward with his fingers and the propeller roared to life, pushing the micro-light swiftly over the ground. The uneven surface was making the frame and the boomerang wing bounce and tip all over the place, but nothing came apart.
Bostich Aerodrome consists of a single, dirt runway, perhaps a thousand feet long. Andre steered the micro-light to the downwind end of this dirt strip, and lined up with the center line. Then I heard his voice come over the headset, broadcasting on the Unicom frequency.
“Microlight 35 papa juliet ready for takeoff on Bostich runway 36. Right turn on takeoff departing the pattern.”
Huh? Those were the proper words to use on a Unicom frequency if this had been a real airplane. This wasn’t an airplane. It was a kite! No one was going to take him seriously. Surely he knew that. Ready for takeoff? How about “OK, Charlie Brown, pull the string tight and run as fast as you can…”
This was really silly. Andre pushed the miniature throttle all the way to the end and the micro-light surged forward confidently. It had gone maybe thirty feet down the runway when Andre tilted the wing back and we were suddenly airborne.
Higher and higher went the powered kite, and I looked down and saw the runway dropping away quickly below us.
And, right then, I panicked. My brain, slow on the uptake, finally realized that being strapped to a kite a hundred feet in the air was no different then hanging from a hook on a crane and swinging back and forth. Paralyzing terror washed over me. It had never occurred to me that my fear of heights would be a problem. I thought I was going to be in an airplane—an ultra light airplane—but an airplane all the same. And I’ve never been afraid of heights in an airplane. I was angry with myself for not realizing the truth: if you can be scared hanging in a wicker basket from a hot-air balloon, or swinging back and forth from a hook on a crane, you’ll probably be just as scared hanging from a kite! In fact, maybe more scared. At least in the wicker basket there was almost no way to fall out. But hanging from the kite, or rather sitting on a tiny motorcycle seat which was hanging from the kite, meant the only thing keeping me from death was the seat-belt. And the seat-belt could flip open in a second if I merely caught my arm on it.
I was utterly, absolutely terrified. There was no choice. I was going to have to tell Andre to land the micro-light immediately and let me off. I would have to confess to simply being too scared. Me, a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine rating, was going to have ask this pilot to land because I was afraid of heights. Yes, it would be the most humiliating thing that had ever happened, but who cared? I had to get back on the ground—immediately! I opened my mouth to talk into the microphone, but no words came out. In the midst of my overpowering fear there were other psychological forces at work. One of these, some rarely-tapped, calm, logical center of reasoning, had a grip on my mouth and wouldn’t let me open it. While this force wrestled for control of my mouth, it made the following observations to my brain.
“First, you can’t admit your scared. You simply can’t. You’d never live it down in your own mind. It’s not an option. Second, you shouldn’t be scared. This is merely a very unusual kind of airplane. You’ve flown dozens of airplanes, what’s the problem? Third, this is really cool. Look around you. This is a very interesting experience. You should be enjoying it!”
I was balanced on a knife edge for several minutes while these opposite viewpoints vied for supremacy. The calm one was about to win when suddenly Andre went on the Unicom frequency again.
“ 35 papa juliet taking off from Bostich, passing three hundred feet, climbing to 1,000.”
A thousand feet? We were going to climb three times higher than we already were? I had to stop this immediately.
But the calm, rational part of my mind was determined to win, and again it wouldn’t let me say the words. So I sat there in silence, terrified, and intently observed everything around me. Actually this was kind of interesting. It wasn’t fun. It was light-years away from fun. But it was interesting.
The landscape was opening up rapidly as we gained altitude. And I knew the landscape well from driving all over it for the last two hours looking for the airport. The hills were pastoral and green, and here and there a herd of sheep could be spotted.
“What do you think?” asked Andre, his voice clear in the headset “Should we fly north to the area around Stellenbosch, or go south to Cape Town?”
The sky was still heavy with clouds to the north. I suggested Cape Town.
“ 35 papa juliet, departing Bostich pattern, heading south-southeast.”
The craft eased gently into a bank, which afforded an excellent view of the wing itself. Hang-glider wings are always brightly colored, and this one was very much so. It was probably bigger than a normal hang glider, since it had to carry so much extra weight, but in other respects it was nothing more than a hang-glider.
Andre was controlling it—apparently—by moving the triangle frame left and right. I didn’t quite understand how it worked and was about to ask when we hit turbulence. It was probably not turbulence that would even register in a normal small plane. But to a kite it was significant and soon we were bouncing all over the sky. What little composure I had dissolved, and I was terrified all over again. This was the most horrible experience of my life.
“Ready to fly her yourself?” asked Andre.
“Uh, sure,” I said, hoping he hadn’t heard the quiver in my voice. I was ready to try anything that would change the present situation. Perhaps the mental activity necessary to fly the thing would get my mind off my fear.
Andre showed me how to reach forward and grab the triangle frame , which I could do by reaching over the top of his shoulders. My purchase on the frame was higher up towards the peak, which meant I didn’t have the leverage the pilot himself did. I would have to work harder to move it back and forth.
But a bigger problem was the cold. A thousand feet up in the air, flying at 60 miles an hour, the wind-chill was devastating. The need for the snowmobile suits was now obvious, but I had only the thinnest of gloves and the wind went right through them.
“To bank right, just push the frame to the left,” explained Andre. “To bank left, push the frame right.”
I pushed the frame tentatively to the left and it wouldn’t go. I pushed harder. Suddenly the micro-light tipped abruptly to the right and I quickly moved the frame back the other direction. The leveled out. I tried the opposite direction with similar results. The wind and turbulence were still buffeting the little craft, and it seemed very possible—even likely—that it would fold up and collapse momentarily. I simply had no confidence in its stability or construction. And I had even less in my ability to control it properly.
But it was true that while trying to master the thing my fear had disappeared. The darn micro-light really did take so much mental energy that there was none left over. As long as I had my hands on the frame, and was concentrating on keeping the wings straight and level, I wasn’t scared. This was a fantastic discovery! Perhaps I wasn’t going to have to tell the pilot to turn around after all.
But the problem of my hands was getting worse. Clinching the metal frame and utterly exposed to the 60 mile per hour wind, they were freezing.
“OK, you take it!” I said to Andre, and he put his own hands on the frame, as I withdrew mine. Inside my snowmobile-suit pockets the hands warmed up quickly enough. But this wasn’t going to work. Now I was terrified again. The mind-numbing, paralyzing fear had merely been dormant—edged out of my consciousness by the concentration required in learning a new skill. As soon as my hands were back in my pocket I again realized that I was loosely attached to a fabric kite a thousand feet in the air, bouncing all over the sky with wind gusts and turbulence.
“OK, I’ve got it!” I said, and seized control of the frame once more. The fear vanished. The freezing cold reappeared. I bore it as long as I could, enjoying the break from the fear. Then I put my hands back in my pocket and sat there, terrified, enjoying the break from the cold. I went back and forth like this, trading fear for cold and vice versa, putting up with each as long as I could, and then switching.
At this rate we would be hitting the coast in about fifteen minutes. It was already very visible. I saw a long crescent of sand coming up on the other side of a range of low hills. To the left was Cape Town itself, the harbor with its collection of ships, and rising up behind it all: Table Mountain. It was utterly, breathtakingly, beautiful.
I’d finally decided that the cold was better than the fear, and I was flying the micro-light continuously now, and enjoying it. We passed over the beach, with long Atlantic breakers foaming against it, and now there was only water underneath our little craft. Andre had grasped the frame long enough to maneuver us downwards to about 200 feet altitude.
“Fly along the beach!” he said. I banked the micro-light and then leveled out on a new heading, taking us directly along the beach itself. A group of young women in windbreakers looked up at us, smiling and waving. Andre waved back. I kept my hands on the frame.
“It should be a great way to meet girls,” he said. “They always smile and wave. But there’s almost never an opportunity to land and get acquainted. It’s such a waste!”
“You can’t land on the sand?”
“No, it’s too soft and irregular.”
At Andre’s direction I turned the plane inland again, heading back to the airport. It had been about 40 minutes since takeoff. We passed over a heard of sheep, and Andre encouraged me to do a 360 degree turn around them. As expected, they freaked out and went running all over the hill, which was gratifying.
“How do I control pitch?” I asked. “I can handle the turning and banking, but how do I control pitch?”
“Just pull back on the frame to go down, and push down to go up.”
I tried this, and it was like trying to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. I just wasn’t connecting somehow. It wasn’t making sense. I knew the problem. In flying a regular airplane, you pull back on the wheel to tilt the nose up, and push forward to tilt down. This was the opposite. In fact, banking was the opposite as well. Instead of turning to the right to go right, you slid the frame to the left to go right. No wonder it was taking so much mental energy.
I struggled with the pitch for a long time, testing the effect of different movements to the frame. I could sort of understand what was happening, on an intellectual level, but there was nothing natural to it. It required tremendous effort to force myself to move the controls “backwards” from what I was used to.
The airport was now in sight, although still distant. On a hunch, I glanced up at where the frame met the wing and—as I watched the wing—I pushed the frame away from me. The wing tilted up. I pulled it back. The wing tilted down. I did the same thing banking to the left, and then the right. When I pushed the bar to the left, it pivoted the wing to the right. It was connected directly to the wing.
My God, that was it! I was controlling the wing itself! I’d known this intellectually, of course. I just hadn’t internalized it. In a regular airplane, the wing is controlled by ailerons, which are connected by cables to the yoke. The pitch of the plane is controlled by the elevator on the tail’s horizontal stabilizer. That, also, is controlled by cables attached to the yoke. (The rudder works the same way, although the rudder isn’t really important in a plane.) But no wonder I’d been confused. I was subconsciously thinking of this as an airplane, with control surfaces. And everything was working backwards. That wasn’t the way to think of it at all. There were no control surfaces! It was the wing itself that I was moving!
When I pulled the frame towards me I wasn’t pulling a frame, I was physically tipping the wing down—lowering its angle of attack! Instantly everything made sense. With my new-found understanding I banked left and right, right, left, went up, down, down, up, climbing left turn, descending right turn. It was easy! This didn’t require any thought at all. This was… This was… I couldn’t quite place the emotion. It was right there on the periphery of my understanding. And suddenly it came to me. This was like being a bird! I’d grown wings! I was not controlling an airplane in flight. I was—myself—flying, with wings attached directly to my body!
Perhaps no moment in my life has held such sheer exhilaration, such utter joy. The sensation of pure flight was wonderful and magical and something out of a dream. We were half a mile from the airport, and soon it would be time to enter the pattern and land. Andre was talking on his Unicom frequency again, quite content now to let me fly the micro-light.
Land? Go back to earth? I didn’t want to land. I didn’t want to go back to earth—ever! I wanted to soar up into the clouds, buzz the beach, skim the waves, fly back and forth over Cape Town, head for Namibia and keep going! I had discovered a freedom—a sensation—never before imagined. And now—just when I’d tasted it—we had to land? It was all going to be over? Life was so unfair.
But if we had to land, I was desperate to land the micro-light myself. Now that the wing was attached directly to my body—now that I was the wing—the final approach and flare out just before touchdown would be almost sensual. But Andre was being selfish, not that I blamed him, and he took back control just as we entered the pattern.
The little craft bounced down and rolled to a stop. Andre gunned the propeller and we turned in towards the hanger, where he shut down the engine. Everything was suddenly very quiet. We unbuckled our seatbelts and climbed off.
“Well,” said Andre, “what did you think?”
“OK, how much will you sell it to me for? I’ll pay cash. Anything. I’ve got to have it. Does it come apart? Can I check it as luggage? ”
“Yeah,” said Andre. “I can tell. You’re hooked.”
Back in the hangar we shared a cup of coffee and talked about life in South Africa.
“Tell me about those squatters’ villages,” I said. “I saw several near here, while I was driving around. I can’t believe all the garbage. It’s just blowing around, lying all over the grass. I can understand being poor, but there’s no reason they can’t pick up the trash. Do they like to live like that?”
“Don’t get me started…” said Andre, with exasperation. “You know earlier this year the government tried to move the people out of one of those villages. Adjacent to the village they built a really nice collection of concrete apartment things. They were just single story huts, really, but they had lights, running water, bedrooms, windows. They moved the squatters into them, but the government insisted the tenants pay 20 rand a month for electricity, per family. [about four dollars] No one was willing to pay. They all left those beautiful little apartments and moved back into their garbage dumps, just so they wouldn’t have to pay a tiny, token amount for electricity. Then, over the next several months, they’d sneak in at night and rip stuff out of the apartments: doors, hardware, anything they could pull off, and take it back to their squatters’ village. The experiment was a complete failure.”
“Was 20 rand a month simply more than they had? Was it a case of them being so poor they couldn’t afford even that much?”
“Oh, give me a break. Those people had enough money to pay their electricity. Many of them have jobs, they earn money here and there. The government knew they could easily pay the 20 rand, that’s why they set the price at that level. The government was just trying to keep the squatters from thinking they were entitled to something absolutely for free. They wanted at least to see a little effort, something. Nope. They were just too lazy and greedy. If they couldn’t have the apartments for free, they’d just sneak in at night and rip stuff off and take it back to their shacks.”
“So what’s going to happen to this country?”
“You know, I just don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ve got two cultures here and as long as they were kept apart, everything worked. Now they’re trying to integrate them. I have nothing against the blacks, but when you can’t even get those squatters to pay a few rand a month to move from cardboard shacks into nice, modern housing units—well, what hope is there? How do you merge cultures that are so completely different?”
After coffee Andre gave me a tour of the other weird airplanes: the Bush Babies and Gyrocopters and such. I didn’t want to leave. I was ready to try the Gyrocopter next. But Andre had to get back to work and soon I was back in my rental car, heading for Stellenbosch.
The Southernmost Tip of Africa
I squeezed in one more bike ride, this time on the eastern side of Stellenbosch, and saw more hills, and vineyards, and “coloreds” before dropping the bike back at the Visitors Center where the young girl promised she’d return it to its owner. It was mid-afternoon on Sunday and tomorrow Deonne would arrive at my hotel. Probably we’d have free time during the day, before the speech, but it was anyone’s guess how we’d spend it.
This would be my last chance to do the one thing almost no one bothers to do in South Africa, but which is clearly the most important. I needed to visit Cape Alguhas. No one’s heard of Cape Alguhas. Everyone’s heard of the Cape of Good Hope. That’s wrong. The Cape of Good Hope is silly. It’s just a finger of land that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Cape Alguhas, on the other hand, is the southern tip of Africa. Not one person in a hundred knows that. Everyone thinks Good Hope is the southern tip. But anyone who looks at a world map knows otherwise.
Fools go to Cape of Good Hope. I was going to Cape Alguhas. The day was far from over. Studying my highway map, I guessed it to be about a three hour drive. Two hours later I guessed it to be closer to a five hour drive. Distances are vast in South Africa. The country I’d been going through was unquestionably beautiful: rolling hills (some of them not rolling at all, but quite steep and mountainous), lush green pastures, pine forests, ocean vistas, lots of sheep, not many people, and excellent, excellent highways.
“Some say South Africa’s highways are the best in the world,” Deonne had mentioned once, and I was prepared to believe it. But of one thing there was no doubt. The drivers in South Africa are definitely the best in the world. South Africa has developed a driving culture in which, when someone approaches from behind, you pull over to the shoulder and let them pass. This is so easy, and so polite! And the shoulders themselves are broad enough that everyone can do this with no inconvenience. The shoulders are like another lane and you don’t even need to slow down when you use them. In America, by contrast, most drivers aren’t even aware when someone is behind them, nor would they care.
It was now 5:30 p.m. and I was still at least two hours from Agulhas, maybe more. It would be dark when I arrived, probably. And then—allowing for no time there at all—it would be after midnight when I returned to my hotel room in Cape Town. I tend to live my life based on being able to answer ‘yes’ to questions like: “Have you ever been scuba diving in Micronesia?” “Have you ever picked grapes in vineyards in Switzerland?” “Have you ever driven a reindeer sled in Lapland?” It’s a horrible irony of my life that I can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, and many more besides, but no one has ever asked them. No one has ever cared. I peered deep into my future and encountered the dismal truth that probably—almost certainly—I would live out the rest of my years with no one asking me if I’d ever been to Cape Alguhas. Here I was driving like a madman to get to a place so I could say I’d been there, and no one would ever ask if I’d been there because no one else even knew it existed, nor would they care even if they did! It is no compliment to the human race that this was so, but there it was.
Did I really want to drive for another seven hours and get back to my hotel after midnight, just to see some stupid Cape at the southern tip of Africa? After all, years earlier I’d been to Cape Spartel in Morocco, the northwestern tip of Africa that separates the Mediterranean from the Atlantic Ocean. No one had ever been impressed by that fact. No one had ever asked. I’d found no convenient point in a conversation in which it could be injected, though Lord knows I’d been looking for one.
Disgusted for giving up, yet proud for not wasting anymore time driving to some meaningless place, I pulled onto the shoulder and soon had reversed my direction and was heading back to Cape Town.
I was starting to cross the mountains again, back into Cape province, when—out of the corner of my eye—I caught a brief glimpse of a highway sign before it disappeared behind me. “Warning! Don’t feed the…” and then it was gone. What was the “…” I wasn’t supposed to feed? A few miles farther on the same thing happened. I just caught sight of the “Warning! Don’t feed the…” before my car raced past and I again missed the last word—the important word. When it happened a third time, I was not only frustrated, I was becoming very curious. My mind began imagining all kinds of dangerous animals that might be lurking about, and which I might be tempted to feed if not for the warning signs. As my imagination grew, so—in my mind—did this wild, near-mythical beast. Pretty soon it had horns and vicious teeth, and a row of sharp spines along its back, and horrible claws. And it was large. Very large. And it snarled menacingly. Saliva dripped from its hideous fangs…
Another highway sign—a more promising one—indicated a scenic turn-off just ahead. My car was high up on a mountain pass now, and I felt I was owed a good view. If I couldn’t make it to Cape Alguhas, I could at least check out this scenic thing. I exited the highway and was just pulling into a cul-de-sac with apparently a nice view over Cape Province when I saw the warning sign displayed once more. And this time I had time to read all of it: Warning: Don’t feed the…baboons! That was the missing animal! As if on cue, a small herd of baboons suddenly appeared, frolicking around the little parking area. At sight of my car they stopped in their tracks and stared at me. Then one baboon, continuing to stare at me, walked calmly over to another baboon and began copulating—still staring at me as he did so.
On some atavistic, primitive level, I understood completely what was going on here. This large, male, baboon was making a statement.
“Yo! You in the car! This here’s my woman. You have any question whether this is my woman or not—check out what I’m doing. That kind of proves it, don’t you think? So don’t be getting any ideas, where my woman is concerned, ‘cause you’ll have to get past me to get to her…understand?”
My male hormones bristled to the surface, and I was considering doing battle right there on the spot, but then I reconsidered. His date wasn’t all that cute. Nonetheless I was tempted to roll down my window and yell out some insult like: Hey! There’s only two words to describe your woman: UG—LY. But I restrained myself. One thing was certain. I had no intention of feeding these foul-tempered, arrogant, obscene mammals. They’d get no food out of me. And as for that big baboon, if he was going to treat his girlfriend like that the least he could do is buy her a nice dinner somewhere, and pay for it himself…
Deonne arrived early Monday morning, and was impressed to hear that I’d spent Saturday riding a bicycle around Stellenbosch and Sunday flying a micro-light around Cape Town.
“So what would you like to do today?” he asked. “If you don’t mind a suggestion, what would you think about driving down to the Cape of Good Hope?”
As the coastline of Africa makes its broad curve from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, there comes a spot that a reasonable person might agree was the southwestern-most point of Africa. Jutting out from this hypothetical place is a tiny finger of land—a peninsula—which extends westward into the Atlantic, and then veers sharply south for perhaps thirty miles before ending in a point. Cape Town is located where this peninsula connects to the mainland, such that Cape Town has two shores: the one to the northwest of the peninsula and the one to the southeast. (When I was flying the micro-light, I was over the northwest shore.)
The peninsula itself is very mountainous or at least hilly, with a kind of gnarled, rocky appearance. In many places there are forests, but there are also grasslands looking almost like tundra because of the short-cropped vegetation. In aggregate, the peninsula might be half the size of Rhode Island, and a few small villages are tucked here and there along the coastlines. On the western side the Atlantic ocean pounds mercilessly against the rocky shore, while to the east the water is calm, for the peninsula of course creates a large bay between itself and the mainland. A small, two lane road curves down one side of the peninsula and back up the other and the bottom third of the whole thing has been preserved as a natural park.
The very tip of this peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope, and it really should be the southernmost point in Africa because it looks the part. The peninsula is very mountainous here, and narrows into almost a spear-like point, finally dwindling to a parade of black rocks that march southwards, each one shorter than the one before, until finally they disappear beneath the surface of the waves.
Through some interaction of ocean currents a long thin line of foam continues southwards from where the rocks disappear—implying to all the world that on one side is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other is the Indian Ocean.
It is a very desolate and untamed place, and on the day we were there it was quite cold. Low-hanging clouds wrapped themselves around the various mountain tops and occasionally dipped into the valleys (causing fog). Everything seemed to be shrouded in a kind of other-worldly mist, although visibility was surprisingly good looking out over the water. Here and there a few sprinkles of rain would occur but they were of a sort that could be ignored.
South Africa has done a nice job making the Cape accessible. Modern paved walkways extend over a large portion of the peninsula’s tip. A cable-tram actually ferries tourists up the final several hundred yards to a high hill directly overlooking that final parade of rocks. And there are restrooms and a place to buy coffee, and of course—most important of all—a t-shirt shop.
The souvenirs in the t-shirt shop all carry the inscription: Cape of Good Hope—Where Two Oceans Meet. I purchased a t-shirt with this statement on it, and so did Deonne, and then we walked outside and over to the lookout point and enjoyed the view and gazed southwards towards Antarctica.
“Well, Jacques,” said Deonne, majestically, “there you have it! The southernmost tip of Africa. The Atlantic on one side, and the Indian Ocean on the other!”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” I agreed. And then after a moment I couldn’t help adding: “It’s too bad it’s not really the southernmost tip of Africa…”
“Excuse me?” said Deonne.
“Well, you know. Everyone thinks it is, but it really isn’t.”
“What are you talking about? Of course it’s the southernmost tip of Africa! This is the Cape of Good Hope! Right here!”
“Do you mean even people who live in South Africa think it’s the southernmost tip? I assumed it was only foreign tourists who made that mistake.”
“Well it is the southernmost tip ! Look, even these t-shirts say it: ‘where two oceans meet.’ It says it right here. And, look, see that line of foam, that’s obviously the Atlantic on one side, and the Indian ocean on the other.
“Yes, it looks the part. But the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa.”
“But of course it is! What do you think is the southernmost tip?”
“Cape Alguhas. It’s about seventy five miles east-southeast of here.”
“I’ve never heard of the place. Why do you think it’s the southernmost tip?”
“It’s not a matter of opinion. Here, let me show you the map.”
I was lucky to have brought my South Africa highway map with me in my daypack, and we opened it up now and laid it out on the bench we were sitting on.
“See, here’s where we are, Cape of Good Hope. It’s just a silly little peninsula that sticks out from the mainland. And then over here is Cape Alguhas. You can see it’s definitely farther south.”
Deonne studied the map intently for a moment.
“That’s incredible,” he said at last. “I don’t think anyone in South Africa knows about this! I was always taught that the Cape of Good Hope was the southernmost point.”
“It’s still a very nice Cape,” I said, not wanting him to be too disillusioned. “In fact, I think it’s the most impressive Cape I’ve ever seen. It may be the best in the world. It should be the southernmost point. It deserves to be. it just isn’t.”
“This really isn’t the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean?”
“Nope. The t-shirts are wrong. It’s just the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and that big bay over there.”
“But what about that line of foam extending southwards from the rocks? Doesn’t that look like it marks the boundary between two oceans?”
“It looks like it. But it’s not a real boundary. It’s not, like, ‘official’ foam. It’s just foam.”
I finally convinced Deonne about Cape Alguhas and we both resolved to go there sometime and see the real southernmost tip of Africa. Perhaps there’d be even more foam there. But it was late afternoon now, and we needed to hurry back to Cape Town for the presentation at 7:00 pm.
Driving back through the park we came upon a herd of antelope. This was significant, because this was my first herd of antelope I’d seen in Africa. One is accustomed to seeing vast herds of African antelope on TV, on the wildlife channel, and I was looking forward to seeing them for real: millions of antelope, thunderously roaming over vast plains, dust clouds billowing up behind them so dark they blotted out the sun, lions and hyenas and other predators milling about on the fringes and occasionally launching a vicious attack…
Americans are accustomed to such scenes thanks to television, and here I was, at last, faced with my first herd of real African antelope. Deonne pulled the car over to the side of the road. It was very different from what one sees on TV. To begin with, there weren’t millions of antelope. There were six. And they weren’t migrating desperately to new sources of water. They were contentedly chewing on grass. No vast plumes of dust erupted behind them, because not only were they standing still, but also it was too wet and rainy for dust. And instead of a hungry lion creeping up on them, there was only Deonne and me with a camera creeping up on them.
“They’re called ‘bleesbok’,” whispered Deonne. “‘Blees’ means ‘bald’ in Afrikaner, and that white spot on their heads makes them look bald.”
I knew that “bok” meant antelope, and there were many kinds of bok in Southern Africa: springbok, gembok, weissbok. And now here were some bleesbok. We studied them awhile, and I took the obligatory pictures, but my heart wasn’t in it. This wasn’t exactly the vast plains of the Serengeti…
I called Paula Trollope from Deonne’s cell phone as we drove back up the peninsula, but Paula confessed she’d not been able to reach the manager of the DeBeers mine in Namibia, and thus hadn’t yet been able to set up any kind of tour. I assured her that this was not a problem, and that now I obviously had another good reason to come back to Africa in the future.
A Detour to Durban
We arrived in Cape Town in time for showers and a change into suits and ties. I figured I would give the same speech I’d given in Johannesburg, so it was just a question of reviewing my notes.
The Victoria and Albert Hotel had set up about forty chairs in one of the conference rooms for our presentation and the caterers were busily setting out hors d’oeuvres and drinks. The man from the video shop arrived with our rented LCD projector and I was again amazed to find that it worked perfectly with my little IBM laptop. This kind of compatibility was very rare even in the states. The video guy and Deonne began talking and it was a strange conversation.
Finally I interrupted. “How do you do that so easily? Switching back and forth?”
“What do you mean, switching back and forth?” asked Deonne.
Well, you say a sentence in English, then you change to Afrikaans, then English, then Afrikaans. Both of you are going back and forth almost constantly.
“Really? I had no idea we were doing that. Did you know we were doing that?” Deonne asked the video guy.
“No, not at all. It must be completely subconscious.”
Soon the guests began arriving, and I was pleased to see that at least there would be some guests. But they weren’t exactly guests.
Two women engaged me in conversation up near the projector.
“I can’t believe you people actually charged money to have us come and hear a commercial presentation like this,” said one. “And then they charge more for the drinks!” said the other.
This was just the kind of receptive audience a speaker looks forward to addressing.
“They charged you to come here?” I asked, trying to distance myself from “them.”
“Yes, they charged 60 rand. You’d think for 60 rand they’d at least provide free drinks.”
“Yeah, you would, wouldn’t you? Wow, I’m really surprised…”
But the speech went well. We’d managed to attract about thirty people, total, in the audience which was as many as we’d hoped for. I’ve made presentations in the states with only five people present. And there were many questions, and good follow-up discussion. Afterwards Deonne introduced me to some of the more important jewelry industry people from the audience, and more business cards were exchanged.
Then, after the crowd had thinned and the evening was winding to a close, the two bitter women approached me and I braced for a tongue-lashing.
“I just wanted to say,” said the one, “that that was one of the most fascinating presentations I’ve ever heard.”
“We’re very glad we came,” said the other. “And we learned a lot.”
Wow! That would fuel my ego for days. You always like to win over a tough audience… But of course how many people did they get down here, explaining the Internet to jewelers? Making the speech interesting was like shooting ducks in a barrel…
The flight back to Johannesburg left at sunrise the next morning, and as we settled back in our seats I had time to reflect on what lay ahead.
Deonne’s travel agent had done a great job organizing everything for me. I would change planes in Johannesburg—it was a tight connection but I’d make it—and fly on to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Deonne himself would stay behind, so I’d be on my own again.
Well-traveled people always refer to Victoria Falls as “Vic Falls” so I tried to emulate them. From the Vic Falls airport I would be met by a driver and taken to the “Chobe Game Lodge” in the middle of the Chobe National Park wilderness in Botswana, about a 90 minute drive. I would stay at the lodge two nights, during which I would engage in something called “game drives.” I was looking forward to finding out what a game drive was. On Thursday I would be driven back to Zimbabwe and deposited at the Victoria Falls Hotel—kind of the ‘grand damme’ of the Vic Falls hotels I surmised. I would be met there and transferred to the two day “canoe safari” on the Zambezi river. Following that I would be taken back to the Vic Falls Hotel, would stay there for two more nights, and would then fly back to Johannesburg on Sunday, changing planes on the way to Sydney, Australia.
In short, this was going to be the “vacation” part of my trip: no business meetings, no Internet speeches. Just lions, tigers, and bears—or at least elephants. I would be leaving South Africa behind, and traveling to a completely different area, deep within the heart of the continent.
I was ready to leave South Africa and explore some place new. I’d been to Johannesburg and Pretoria, toured the Stellenbosch area, driven all around Cape Town and the Cape peninsula. There was really only one place I’d hope to visit in South Africa that I would be missing: the town of Durban, on the Indian Ocean.
It was silly of me to want to go to Durban, but one of my favorite movies had been all about Durban (“A Boy Ten Feet Tall”), and that seemed a good enough reason. I hated the thought of leaving South Africa without ever setting foot in Durban, but you can’t have everything.
The captain’s voice came over the speaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to have to bring you bad news, but the Johannesburg airport is closed at the moment due to fog. This is very unusual. In fact, I’ve never known that airport to be closed for any reason. But it seems we’re going to have to proceed to our alternate and land. Our alternate airport on this flight is Durban, so Durban is where we are now heading.”
The plane banked to the right as he said these words, and soon settled on the new route.
“Wow, I can’t believe my luck!” I said to Deonne. “I’ve always wanted to go to Durban. Now we’re going to Durban!”
“Yes, but Jacques, what about your connection to Vic Falls?”
“Oh yeah, right.” I checked my ticket. It was only a 45 minute connection. With any kind of delay at all, I’d miss it.
“Well, there must be dozens of flights a day to Vic Falls, either from Durban or Johannesburg.” I was sure I’d be able to straighten everything out.
But I was wrong. At the Durban airport I learned that there are no flights from Durban to Vic Falls. Everything goes through Johannesburg. And—worse—the flight I was due to take was the last flight of the day from Johannesburg to Vic Falls. If I missed it—and I was certain to miss it—I’d have to wait until the following morning. And that would screw everything up. I’d not get to the Chobe Lodge until late Wednesday, and have to leave the next morning!
Well, this is just the kind of thing that happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I wasn’t sure the agent in Durban was correct about flights out of Johannesburg. But there was nothing more I could do from here. We’d been on the ground barely an hour in Durban when an announcement was made that the Johannesburg airport had now reopened, and we were requested to re-board our flight. I grudgingly admitted that my visit to Durban hadn’t been all that wonderful in retrospect.
Soon we were back in Johannesburg, and the news was getting worse. My round-trip to Cape Town had been on British Airways. But the flight to Victoria Falls was on South African. At the South African ticket desk they confirmed that (1) I had definitely missed the flight, and (2) there were no more flights to Vic Falls, on any airline, until tomorrow morning. Deonne had to get back to work and couldn’t really play tour guide for me in Johannesburg—not that I wanted to see more of Johannesburg anyway. It was like being stuck in Omaha. Was there no good news in all this?
“Well,” said the South African ticket agent, “since you missed your flight because British Airways was so late getting here, you might ask them to pay for your hotel for tonight, here in Johannesburg.”
Wow, what a consolation prize that would be. I’d be missing out on safaris in Botswana, but at least I’d get a free hotel room near the airport in Johannesburg. We walked over to British Airways nonetheless. The desk that we’d come to had a big “closed” sign on it, but there were several agents talking to each other and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least ask them if I might be entitled to a free hotel room.
The woman nearest me heard my story, took a look at my tickets, and said: “Well, why don’t you just take our flight to Vic Falls? It leaves in ten minutes.”
Talk about luck changing! The British Airways flight hadn’t left yet because the airport had been closed. It was leaving over an hour late.
“Ten minutes? Will I make it? I can run fast if I have to. Can you give me directions?”
This was a serious point, as Johannesburg airport is huge, I didn’t know my way around at all, and for an international flight I’d have to go through customs and probably get departure stamps on my ticket, and face all kinds of lines.
“Oh, I think we can do better than that. Suzy here will escort you.”
At mention of her name, Suzy—blonde, beautiful, stunning British Airways flight attendant—hurried over, eager to be of service.
“You’re going on that flight?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll take you there myself,” she replied, smiling and enthusiastic, as if the opportunity to personally escort me somewhere was going to be the high point of her week.
“In fact, they need me to bring a wheel chair down to the gate—” She reached behind the counter and brought forth a wheel chair, rolling it directly in front of me. “—would you like a ride, Mr. Voorhees,” she purred, smiling coquettishly and with a lovely tilt to her head.
“I’ve got a better idea. You sit in the chair, and I’ll give you a ride!”
But in the end we both walked, and pushed the wheelchair in front of us. Suzy whisked me past all the bureaucrats, and the lines, and the departure stamps, using her British Airways credentials, while I coaxed out of her the story of how she’d emigrated from England and now lived in Johannesburg and what it was like flying for British Airways in South Africa; and she plied me with questions about living in the ski country of Colorado, where she’d always hoped to visit. The trip to the gate was over way too soon, and a few minutes later the Boeing 737 pushed back and headed for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe—deep in the heart of Africa.
“Enjoy the flight!” said Suzy.
Despite what had once been a fairly extensive knowledge of the geography of Africa, in the seventies I’d given up on the whole continent. There were simply too many name changes and countries merging and dividing, and who could keep it all straight? The Congo became Zaire. Yeech. What a disgusting name: Zaire. Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged into Tanzania. Double yeech. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe—actually that was an improvement. South-West Africa became Namibia. And so forth.
Now I was studying my map of Africa desperately—trying to get back up to speed—and I discovered that Victoria Falls occupies an interesting location right at the spot where four important countries come together: Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia.
I knew about Zimbabwe and Namibia, of course. But I’d utterly missed—somehow had failed to ever notice before this trip—the existence of a place called Botswana. And my awareness of Zambia was embarrassingly small. It was worse than that, actually. My best friend from college days—Steve Wiggins—and I used to rent a Cessna 172 out of Denver and fly around the desolate hill country near Castle Rock fifty to sixty feet above the ground, pretending we were mercenaries firing air-to-ground machine guns at roving bands of “Zambians”. The word had just sounded cool, we’d dredged it up from somewhere, and Zambians sounded like the kind of disruptive people you’d want to attack with machine guns from the air. I’d fly the plane in and out of valleys and canyons and across forests, and Wiggins would make great machine-gun sounds with his mouth, and it was just about the most fun two guys could have in a Cessna. Of course it was also utterly sick, when you think about it. Anyway, that was all I knew about Zambia.
But what was Botswana? It was a large country, as big as Zimbabwe. Why hadn’t I—an expert at geography—ever heard of it before? Probably it had changed its name recently from some common word everyone knows, like Sheba or Atlantis or Nubia or Shangri-La or something.
Zambia, meanwhile, probably owed its name to some connection with the Zambezi river, which the map seemed to think was a very important river, and which flowed along the country’s southern border.
In any case there should only have only been three countries which came together here, not four. Zimbabwe was tucked up against the Zambezi river on its northern border—well and good. And Botswana—kind of the 900 pound gorilla of central Africa and entitled to place itself wherever it wished—was nudged in there below Zambia and to the west of Zimbabwe. Then we come to Namibia. Namibia is located way over to the West, on the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from Victoria Falls. So what was it doing here? Well, as it happens a small piece of Namibia—no more than a strip a few miles wide—juts out to the Northeast of the real country and stabs hundreds of miles inland, terminating just shy of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river. And this piece of land is called the Caprivi Strip and no doubt owes its heritage to some quirk of warfare, or evil white commercial treaty-making, or—most likely—a muscle twitch on the part of some draftsman at the Versailles Conference in 1918 in Paris.
The plane was beginning its descent now into Victoria Falls. Suzy was occupied collecting plates and glasses, and I had plenty of time to look out the window at this strange new world where four countries came together in the middle of Africa.
It was not the vast, open plains seen so often on the Animal Channel. But it was not jungle, either. It was slightly hilly, and covered with brush and low trees. The earth was almost crimson. Probably it was the dry season, or the wet season, or the something season. I made a mental note to find out what season it was, and what the implications of that might be.
The Chobe Game Lodge
Vic Falls airport was one of those airports where you have to walk down a boarding latter to get off the plane. They don’t have concourses or boarding ramps or such. And inside was the usual controlled chaos one finds everywhere at third world airports. And one more thing besides: a man standing there with a sign saying “Voorhees”.
“I’m Voorhees,” I confessed.
“Yes, Mr. Voorhees,” the large black man replied, smiling. “We need to get your luggage.”
“This is it,” I explained, pointing to my backpack.
“That’s all you have?”
He was surprised, and I’m sure it was because the blacks must long since have become accustomed to Europeans arriving with large steamer trunks and multiple suitcases and other bags containing hunting rifles, and golf clubs, and portable arm chairs and so forth—all of it requiring fifty or sixty native porters with machetes to trek it through the wilderness.
But in our case we were soon driving away from the Vic Falls airport, which was in the middle of nowhere, in a VW microbus with myself and two other Caucasians as passengers.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked the young couple.
“We’re from Wales,” they replied. “We’re on our honeymoon!”
“You came to Vic Falls for your honeymoon?”
“Well, we went to South Africa first. We’ve been in Kruger National Park for a week.”
I knew that Kruger National Park was the place you go in South Africa if you want to see wild animals. It was over near the border with Mozambique.
“Did you see anything interesting?”
“Oh yes,” said the young bride. “On our last day there we saw a lion attack a herd of zebra.”
She pronounced it “zeh-brah.”
“Oh, apparently it’s very unusual to see an actual lion attack. But we did, and the lion grabbed the zeh-brah and tore it to pieces and all the guts and everything came out, and it was really gross, actually. The zeh-brah was screaming in pain. It was horrible. But it was also very interesting. The guide said you almost never see a lion actually attack a zeh-brah.”
The country the VW microbus was traveling through was completely uninhabited, with rain forests stretching away perhaps for miles on either side of the two lane highway. But after twenty minutes we came to an intersection with another highway, and the driver pulled off to the side of the road.. He didn’t speak English especially well, but he did speak it adequately.
“You,” he said, pointing to me. “Get out here.”
It might have been more politely worded, but I was willing to make allowances for the language barrier. There were several cars parked at this intersection, and a dozen or so blacks lolled about somnolently, with all the time in the world.
I was supposed to leave the VW microbus? At this middle-of-nowhere intersection? What was going on, exactly?
The driver escorted me to another car—a Land Rover, actually—and to another driver who took my backpack, flung it into the back, and invited me to hop in to the front seat on the left-hand side: the steering wheel being on the right, of course. If there was going to be a point where I would be murdered, and my mutilated body left beside the road, this would definitely be it. But since I had utterly no control of the situation I went ahead and hopped into the Land Rover.
As soon as I was situated, he started up the vehicle and off we went.
“So, “ I began, determined to make conversation at all costs, “where are we going?”
“Chobe Game Lodge,” he said.
“And what country are we in now?
So we’ll be going from Zimbabwe to Botswana?”
Scintillating conversationalist, this driver.
For awhile it appeared that the road would never turn. It continued straight for what seemed like hundreds of miles, but was probably less than that. There was no sign of civilization anywhere: no houses, or villages, or gasoline stations. Just endless forests of African trees, red dirt, and a two-lane asphalt road running through them.
Eventually a town of sorts appeared: just a few cement block structures with tin roofs in a broad clearing.
“You come,” said the driver. “Bring passport.”
We entered one of the buildings where a sea of black faces greeted us from behind a counter. One of them scowled at my passport and then smashed it with a rubber stamp. I was leaving Zimbabwe. This procedure was repeated fifty feet away. I was entering Botswana.
It was obvious the exact moment when we entered Botswana for the asphalt stopped at the border.
“Botswana is very primitive,” Deonne had explained. “There is very little of what you’d call infrastructure. It’s like the real Africa.”
The forests continued, and now we were bouncing along a narrow, double-track dirt road. This gave way inevitably to a single track dirt road, and the bouncing became more pronounced. We were still surrounded by African forests of low trees and brush. There was little else in the way of vegetation: no grass or shrubs. The forest floor consisted largely of dry earth—no longer red, but now a kind of light taupe color—and as we continued into the wilderness of Botswana the dirt dissolved into loose sand.
We bounced past a rusty sign and the driver grunted: “Now we in Chobe Park. This is Chobe Park.
Chobe Park looked no different than anything else. Certainly there was no fence or gate we passed through to enter this park.
“So, what kind of animals are in Chobe Park?” I asked, realizing I might actually see some.
“Elephants,” he replied. “There are thirty-five thousand elephants in Chobe. Look around you, you see what they’ve done…”
Actually, I could see what they’d done. Thirty-five thousand elephants would explain the complete lack of vegetation. It would explain why there was no grass, or shrubs, or even leaves on the trees. Now that he mentioned it, the place looked like the aftermath of a nuclear war. Even large sections of bark had been stripped off many of the trees.
“So, elephants did all this damage?”
He snarled out this last word, as if elephants were a despicable life form, like bacteria.
“How many elephants did you say were in Chobe?”
“Forty-five thousand elephants in Chobe.”
“That’s a lot of elephants. In America, everyone is worried that elephants are an endangered species. They think we need to protect the elephants.”
“Protect the elephants? From what? It’s not elephants need protecting. It’s Botswana needs protecting…”
The Land Rover continued over miles of dusty road—what we’d call a ‘jeep trail’ in the states. And then we came to the lion.
There she was, a lion. A female lion. I knew she was female because I’d seen the movie “The Lion King” and from that one learns that female lions don’t have manes. I’d also heard somewhere that females were the most dangerous. This was an open land-rover: no windows or doors. We weren’t exactly ‘protected.’ And this lion was lying in the middle of the road. Just lying there. One would think that when a Land Rover approached, the lion would turn her head and look at the Land Rover. But no. She didn’t turn her head. She just lay there. The Land Rover came up right behind her, and then pulled off the side of the road slightly so as not to run over the lion. Still she did not turn her head, although she did yawn a few times. Apparently she found our Land Rover somewhat boring.
“Oh, you very, very lucky,” said the driver. “Very unusual, see lion this close!”
Maybe not that unusual. Maybe unusual only to see lion this close and live to tell about it.
But this particular lion had obviously been well-fed, probably on some kind of ‘bok’. This was a couch-potato lion, and the only thing that might have awakened its interest was if a wounded zeh-brah had been dropped directly in front of its mouth. But maybe not even that. This lion was so relaxed I would not have been surprised to see a stack of discarded Miller Hi-Life beer cans piled up next to it, and hear a loud ‘belch’ instead of a roar.
We stayed there for awhile, pulled off to the side of the road, looking at the lion. But the lion did not look at us. A Land Rover six inches behind its tail, with two humans in it—one of whom was frantically taking pictures out the window—this did not show up on the lion’s radar scope as something worse turning a head to observe.
Off on the other side of the road was a small herd of impala. Impala are those brown and white antelope with the twisted horns coming out of their heads. In South Africa they would probably have been called “twistedhornbok.”
The lion was not interested in them. Perhaps she’d already eaten several.
“This lion is so relaxed, perhaps I should get out and take a picture,” I suggested to the driver.
He gripped my arm almost in panic. “No! Never, never get out of Land Rover! In Chobe Park, never get out of Land Rover!”
It was just an idea. Not a good one, obviously.
We drove past the lion and continued on down the road. There came a point where the view opened up to our right. We were high above a river, and on the far side of the river was a vast, marshy plain. It was beautiful, this view. The late afternoon sun had turned the vast wetlands almost crimson, and long shadows stretched out over the grassland from the occasional tree or bush.
The driver had stopped the Land Rover, and we said nothing for awhile, enjoying the scenery..
“What river is that?” I asked, not especially interested in its name.
The Chobe River? Does it flow into the Zambezi?
“Yes, Chobe flows into Zambezi.”
“But then, across the river, that must be…”
“Yes, that is Namibia. This land is called Caprivi Strip.”
Wow. I was in a Land Rover in Botswana, looking out over Namibia. I was surrounded by 40,000 elephants, at least one lion, and a small herd of impala. It was just too cool.
We kept going, deeper into Chobe Park. We did not see any more animals but I’m certain they were seeing us. This was the African wilderness, and the farther we went the clearer it was that we were in the animal kingdom—far from civilization. Large mounds of elephant droppings could be seen almost everywhere. We reached a point where there were not trees without at least some elephant damage. We could hear the cries of birds and see the tracks of wild beasts.
We came at last to Chobe Game Lodge. I was curious about the name. “Game Lodge.” Was that like “fishing lodge” in Montana? Would they outfit us with hunting rifles in the morning, and take us to the best places from which to shoot rhinoceroses?
Chobe Game Lodge was beautiful. An expensive architectural firm had perhaps been hired with orders to create a structure that would blend in with the scenery, not be obtrusive, and yet offer all the amenities that tourists might desire. And this is just what Chobe Game Lodge did. It was a single-story structure, resembling on the outside a kind of Arizona “pueblo” look and which sprawled over several acres. The grounds consisted of close-cropped grass surrounded by green hedges perfectly manicured. On the inside it was very modern. On the outside it was very primitive. It reminded me of the Club Med at Ouarzazate in southern Morocco—on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
A young, attractive black woman, with a butch haircut (I’m not kidding) came out and greeted me, and then ushered me inside to the reception desk. I had various vouchers and such which I’d received from the South African travel agency, and these were dutifully taken by the clerk and examined. I was handed the key to my room, and then the young woman escorted me to an area of voluptuous armchairs on an open-air patio, overlooking Namibia and the Zambezi river.
“I would like to acquaint you with the Chobe Game Lodge and the activities available to you,” she said, smiling and eager to please. “My name is Mfina.”
I was finding it difficult to remember that outside were 45,000 wild elephants.
“Meals are served three times each day, buffet style, in our dining room. A bell is sounded before each meal service.”
The dining room, I discovered later, was also a form of open-air patio overlooking Namibia.
“Each day you’ll have a choice of activities. There’s no charge for any of them. Two times a day there is a motor-boat tour of the Chobe River. Three times a day is a canoe excursion on the Chobe. And there are three game drives each day. One leaves at 6:00 a.m. and returns at 9:00. One leaves at 10:00 a.m. and returns at 1:00. And one leaves at 3:30 and returns at 6:30.
It was now 4:00 pm.
“So there’s nothing really I can do today?”
“I’m afraid not. I know you were supposed to arrive earlier, but you’ll be able to schedule a full day tomorrow.”
“OK, let’s schedule tomorrow.”
“What would you like to sign up for?”
“Yes, well, you know, the motor boats and canoes and game drives and so forth.”
She rose to the challenge.
“Well, if you want to do everything, then we’ll schedule you for the 6:00 a.m. game drive, the 10:00 a.m. motorboat tour, the 1:00pm canoe excursion, and the 3:30 game drive. How does that sound?”
“Perfect. Do you think I’ll see some animals?”
“You will certainly see some animals, but one never knows what one will see. Sometimes you see very little, sometimes a lot.”
“I heard there are lots elephants in Chobe.”
“Yes, there are over 55,000 elephants in Chobe Game Park. I’m quite certain you will see some elephants. Now, there’s one more thing I must warn you about. The baboons.”
“What’s wrong with the baboons?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the baboons, but they’re all over the Chobe Game Lodge. You’ll see them on the grass, possibly on the balcony of your room, everywhere.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“Yes, they can be dangerous. A baboon bites with three times the jaw strength of a lion.”
“I see the problem.”
“Yes, you don’t want to be bitten by a baboon. A baboon can rip your arm off.”
“And how does one avoid that, exactly?” I was glad I hadn’t challenged that baboon, after all, back in South Africa.
“Just leave them alone. Ignore them. Don’t try to feed them, or call to them, or pay any attention to them at all. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
“OK, I’m happy to ignore the baboons, and I certainly won’t feed them. They can pick up the tab for their own social life, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Uh, nothing. I was just thinking about this one baboon… I’m sorry, you were saying?
“Yes. Another thing, at night, when you walk back and forth from your room to the main lodge, please stay on the lighted path.”
“No problem. I’ll be sure to stay on the lighted path.”
“Very good. I think that’s all that needs to be covered.”
“Um, I’m just curious. What might happen if I didn’t stay on the lighted path?”
“You might be attacked by a lion. The lions hunt at night. They sleep during the day.”
“What! You mean that a lion might attack right here on the hotel property? Isn’t there a fence or anything?”
“No, there are no fences in Chobe. This is a game lodge. We are in the wilderness, and most of the predators hunt at night. I don’t want to alarm you. If you stay on the lighted path, I’m sure you’ll be safe.”
With that last bit of advice she gave me her name and made me promise I would find her again if there was anything I needed. I was tempted to ask for an AK-47 assault rifle and a hum-vee with a mounted fifty-caliber machine gun to escort me back to my room, but I didn’t want to appear to be nervous. Male pride kicks in at some level, lions or no lions.
But I did stay on the lighted path thereafter, and I did ignore the baboons—utterly ignored them, even when they were frolicking around on the roof, on my balcony, and all over the lawn between my room and the main lodge. I was quite fond of these baboons, actually. I had a theory that if a real lion was about, the baboons would flee, so they might serve as a kind of early warning system with respect to the lions.
That night over dinner I was reading Michener’s “Covenant” and came across one very intriguing paragraph in which he described, in worshipful terms, Africa’s biggest antelope: the eland.
“[There was one]…animal which the [San tribe] treasured above all others: the giant eland, taller than a man, a remarkable beast with horns that twisted three or four times from forehead to tip, a tuft of black hair between the horns, a massive dewlap, and a distinctive white stripe separating forequarters from the bulk of the body. To the tribe this stately animal provided …courage to the heart and meaning to the soul. It gave structure to San life, for to catch it men had to be clever and well organized. It served also as spiritual summary to a people lacking cathedrals and choirs; its movements epitomized the universe and formed a measuring rod for human behavior. The eland was not seen as a god, but rather as proof that gods existed, for who else could have contrived such a perfect animal?”
I was understandably impressed, and very much hoping that sometime while in Africa I would be blessed with a sight of this fabulous beast. I resolved to keep my camera with me at all times, loaded and ready to capture—on film—this apparently most magnificent spectacle, this noble life-form: an African eland.
Finishing my salad course I grabbed a new plate and walked back up to the buffet counter, where the cook was carving a beautiful prime-rib. The aroma of the meat had wafted throughout the dining room, and I must have been hungry for I found my stomach growling in anticipation. The cook carefully sliced-off a portion, set it on my plate amidst a sea of red juice, and then looked up, smiling.
“That’s beautiful prime-rib!” I said.
“Not prime-rib!” said the cook. “Eland.”
Eland? This slab of flesh was eland? This was the remarkable thing that provided courage to the heart and meaning to the soul? Structure to life and spiritual summary in place of cathedrals and choirs? Epitomization of the universe? Proof of the existence of God? Why, this eland didn’t look like it could sing two notes in a row, let alone deliver a good sermon. But in all fairness—while it didn’t help much with meaning for my soul—the eland did contribute greatly to my enjoyment of dinner. It’s a pity I’d left my camera in the room…
Looking for Animals
Six a.m. came early enough. Two open-air Land Rovers were waiting by the front door of the Chobe Game Lodge. It was winter in Botswana, and the temperature could not have been more than forty degrees. Soon our Land Rover headed out, with about five people in it, two of them newlyweds from England. I’d had no idea that safari country was such a honeymoon hotspot for the British.
“So what do you think we’ll see?” the groom asked the driver, who was black, as were most of the workers at the Game Lodge.
“Probably elephants,” he replied. “There are over 60,000 elephants in Chobe Park.”
The quoted number of elephants had been climbing precipitously for the last 24 hours. It had started at 35,000 and was now over 60,000. The trend was ominous, until I realized that—when you think about it—there’s obviously no way to really know how many elephants there are. People were just making up whatever number sounded like lots of elephants.
The road was a two-lane jeep trail, of the kind we’d been on ever since entering Botswana. The country was fairly uniform: lots of trees, occasionally an open grassy area. We were on a plain about fifty feet above the level of the Chobe River which we could see, occasionally, along with its pretty Namibian backdrop on the other side. The dirt road was frequently joined by other roads—there were many intersections, but our driver never hesitated on which way to go. In truth I’m not sure it mattered. A game drive is much like scuba diving. You just wander around until you find something interesting and then you look at it until you get tired of looking and then you wander around some more and look for something else.
We did see many birds. The driver was in awe of all these birds, or perhaps he’d been trained to pretend he was. For my part, I can take birds or leave them. No matter how exotic, how colorful, how unusual are the sounds they make, the darn things are awfully small. And in the wild they’re usually not all that close. Often as not the sun is behind them forcing you to squint and still not see much except a feathered silhouette. Our driver would frequently point out one or more birds, with various exotic names, and all of us passengers would duly ooh and awww and make believe this was the high point of our vacation—seeing these insignificant little things. As far as I’m concerned, getting excited about watching birds makes not much more sense than getting excited about watching insects. I was ready for the big stuff: lions, elephants, hippopotamuses. And what I wanted to see most was a giraffe.
On this game drive we didn’t see any of those things. We saw “Cape Buffalo.” Cape Buffalo look like water buffalo, with their curved horns, but we were told that these were much larger than water buffalo.
“Cape Buffalo one of the ‘big four’ trophies,” explained the driver. “You come to Africa, hunt game. You want the big four.”
“And the other three would be…?”
“Big four are Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, and elephant. But you know what?”
“More hunters have lost their lives to Cape buffalo then to the other three combined. Cape buffalo very, very dangerous.”
Well I was real pleased to know that, considering that our Land Rover was now stopped in the middle of what was becoming a very large herd of Cape buffalo. They’d started out to the right of the road. After we arrived, they decided to cross to the left. One side looked as good as another to me, but I wasn’t going to argue with them. Unlike yesterday’s somnolent lion, these buffalo were all looking at us. Any three of them could have made mincemeat out of the Land Rover if they’d been so inclined. Our driver estimated there were at least 700.
“Biggest herd Cape buffalo I’ve ever seen. You lucky, very lucky, see this many Cape buffalo.”
Yeah, I felt like about the luckiest guy alive, at least if its measured by how many Cape buffalo are surrounding you. I was pretty sure that—at that moment—no one on earth was surrounded by more Cape buffalo then I was. They were in front of the truck, behind the truck, and milling about on both sides of the truck as a cloud of dust hung over the entire scene.
“How many of them did you say there were?” asked the bride.
“About 700 I think. Say, do you know how to figure out how many buffalo are in a herd?”
“How?” someone asked.
“Just count their legs, and divide by four.”
We spent probably twenty minutes surrounded by Cape buffalo, and then most everyone decided they’d seen enough and the driver edged cautiously on down the road.
I was still trying to count the legs.
Other than a few impalas and kudu, and several thousand birds, we didn’t see too much else of interest, and were back in the lodge in time for a late breakfast.
A Sneak Attack on Namibia
Activity #2, the motorboat tour of the Chobe River, left at 10:00. We were in an aluminum skiff—about 18 feet long, sporting a 40 horse Honda outboard. Comfortable little padded benches with backrests had been bolted to the hull, and I took my place on one of these, enjoying the sun on what was turning into a beautiful day.
If you don’t like heat, and don’t like insects, don’t go to a game park in Botswana, right? Wrong—apparently. I’d discovered that winter meant it was the dry season. And the dry season meant no insects. You don’t think of central Africa as having the world’s greatest weather, but the temperature had climbed to a comfortable 70 degrees, the air was dry, and the day’s count on insects was up to one fly and two gnats. And that was in the midst of the buffalo herd.
There was only an elderly English couple, plus the driver, in the boat with me. It was becoming quite obvious that the British still considered the whole southern half of the continent their own—at least for vacation purposes. The little engine roared to life and our driver steered the craft down the river. Now we had Botswana on our right, Namibia on our left.
“So, is that Namibia,” I asked, pointing left, and wanting to make sure.
“Yes, that is Namibia,” agreed the driver.
An idea was growing in my mind but I left it alone for the moment.
The first exotic animal we came upon was a Cape buffalo, standing on the Botswana side, looking at us threateningly. The driver steered us close to the shore, and the British couple got all excited.
“Excuse me?” I wanted to say. “One Cape buffalo? Just one? I measure my Cape buffalo in hundreds.”
I took great pride in sitting back and letting everyone know I was not in the least impressed.
But the next animal impressed me. It was a hippopotamus. Actually it was four hippopotamuses. They were all asleep in the morning sun, lying up on the bank, shiny black, like a gaggle of giant scuba divers in wetsuits, taking a nap. Or like a herd of small whales that were determined to ignore Darwin and climb directly out of the sea and become land-dwelling mammals.
We edged closer and I sensed that our driver was becoming tense.
Thirty feet from the shore, one of the hippopotamuses woke up and looked at us. Not much liking what he saw, he ambled to his feet, opened his big mouth, and roared. It sounded like a Greyhound bus blowing its nose. “OOoooooonnnnnnnkkk!!!”
The driver turned us away from the bank and, seeing this, the hippo went back to sleep. “Mission accomplished,” thought the hippo.
Warthogs were next. We found several of these creatures—arguably the world’s ugliest—snorting around down by the river bank. This time we were able to approach quite closely which was good because they were small. I guessed it would take three of these warthogs to equal one good, corn-fed, Iowa hog.
On the other hand they had tusks, quite vicious looking tusks, which curved back from their snouts in a grotesque shape only a high-priced orthodontist could love.
After the warthog came the dead impala. We saw it from a distance, floating up against the Botswana shore. It was mostly underwater, with just its horns and a couple of legs resting against the bank.
“Ah, very sad,” said the driver. “I see this impala yesterday, and he looked very sick. He’s dead now.”
“How did he die?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said the driver “Maybe tsetse fly, but no flies this time of year. Don’t know why impala sick.”
Frolicking all over the bank, and in the nearby trees, was an invasion of monkeys. We watched the hyper-active monkeys for awhile—a welcome and diverting backdrop to the dead impala—and then continued on down the river.
The next animal on the agenda was a crocodile. We’d seen several already, from a distance, but they’d always scurried into the water as soon as we’d drawn near, like a floating log embarrassed that it had rolled out of the river and onto the bank and trying to get back where it belonged. But finally we found a more sociable crocodile. This one let us draw up along side it in our boat. I guessed it was a case of “flight or hide” syndrome. Crocodiles look so much like logs—and they so clearly know that they do—that this crocodile was obviously hoping we hadn’t seen him yet. A more intelligent crocodile would have deduced otherwise, because all four of us were standing up on the little benches in the boat, firing our cameras downwards, flashes going off, shutters clicking, motor-drives winding. All hell was breaking loose, photographically speaking, and tourists don’t usually behave this way around logs. But hope springs eternal, they say, and certainly this crocodile was going to carry his act out right to the end. He performed so well that after awhile even I was beginning to wonder if maybe this really was just a crocodile-looking log and not the real thing. But as we were only four feet away I could see his long rows of teeth, and they were much sharper than those carried by even the most aggressive logs—judging from my experience with such things which isn’t perfect.
We were far downstream from Chobe Lodge now, and the driver turned the boat back upriver. We passed a rather large island which seemed to be some kind of military installation. I could see gray Quonset huts, military-looking boats, and a watchtower.
“What’s all that about?” I asked the driver.
“Oh, that is Botswana army post,” he explained. “They guard border. That’s why we can’t go Namibia side. If we go Namibia side, and then back, we have to go through border post, and no border post around here. If no go back through border post, very illegal. Botswana army very angry.”
Oh, of all the stupid, petty, bureaucratic idiocies this one had to take the cake. First, Namibia and Botswana are friendly countries, certainly not at war with each other. This wasn’t exactly like East and West Germany during the sixties. Second, on the Namibia side you had a mud bank with a bunch of grass. On the Botswana side you had—guess what!—a mud bank with a bunch of grass. The river flowed between a couple of third-world countries that most people had never even heard of. And if we snuck over to one side and then back again this would be like some huge international incident and everyone would freak out? Give me a break.
“You know, I’ve always wanted to visit Namibia,” I said.
“Very illegal, set foot on Namibia side.”
“Yeah, but can that observation tower even see us if we’re around the next bend.”
“No, they can’t see around next bend.”
“OK, here’s the thing. I’ve always wanted to be able to say I’d been to Namibia, and I’ve got a twenty dollar bill that says you’re brave enough to go around the next bend and let me jump out for ten seconds and get my picture taken in Namibia. Whadya say?”
The British couple were ready for some adventure as well.
“Why, I think that’s a splendid idea! Absolutely splendid!” said the old guy from England. “Of course he has to get his picture taken in Namibia. You just nudge us against the bank, he’ll jump out, and I’ll take his picture.”
I handed the man my camera.
By now we were past the next bend.
“OK,” grinned the driver. He wasn’t in it for the money, he was obviously up for a bit of mischief, just for its own sake.
The boat slowed as we approached the mud bank on the Namibia side, and I positioned myself to leap off swiftly into the mud and grass. Now I began having second thoughts. I wasn’t scared of the Botswana Army (kind of an oxymoron), but I was a bit nervous about crocodiles. I saw neither crocs nor logs, so just as the boat touched the shore I jumped off, ran several yards up onto the bank, and turned back to the boat. The camera clicked, and I scurried aboard. Our driver reversed the engine and soon we were once again in the middle of the river—all of us feeling deliciously illegal.
Back at the Chobe Lodge I tipped the driver a twenty, and we walked back up the bank and past the baboons, arriving just in time for a late lunch.
I wolfed down my food, knowing that Activity #3, the canoe excursion, required that I be back at the dock in 15 minutes.
Elephant Encounter #1
Only one other party had signed up for the canoes this afternoon—two guys from Germany. They shared one canoe with a guide, and I shared the other with a different guide. I was in the bow.
I’ve had quite a bit of experience in canoes, actually, and I was looking forward to getting some exercise paddling. Then I saw the paddles. These weren’t canoe paddles, they were kayak paddles—those horrid double-bladed things. This was going to take all the fun out of, if I had to use a kayak paddle. At least I assumed it was, I’d never actually used one before.
It was worse than I feared. We paddled up river and after about 60 seconds I was exhausted. There’s something about the way you have to hold the other blade up in the air while you paddle with the opposite blade that was making the thing much more difficult than it should have been. I tried varying my technique, cutting into the water at a shallower or steeper angle, but nothing availed. And it wasn’t just tiring. While one blade was in the river, the water would drip down on me from the other blade—of necessity now high in the air—until it seemed my misery could grow no more.
“OK to not paddle. Can rest if want,” said the guide. “I can paddle canoe alone. No problem.”
I could paddle the canoe alone no problem myself if I had a decent paddle. I redoubled my efforts, digging in deep on one side and letting the water cascade over my face with abandon on the other. If it was a question of suffering, I could suffer. I couldn’t put up with failure at paddling a canoe.
We went a ways up the river, and then turned around and went down, and it was beginning to look like we’d see nothing on this excursion except all those birds everyone gets so excited about.
Suddenly the canoe with the two Germans turned in towards the bank. We looked up ahead and saw what they’d seen: a herd of elephants coming out of the bush and down to the river.
These were my first elephants and I was quite excited about them.
I began counting their legs and getting ready to divide by four, so I’d know how many there were, when I realized that wouldn’t work. An elephant’s trunk—since it comes all the way to the ground—looks very similar to one of its legs. So you need to count the legs and divide by five. Perhaps that would explain the math difference between the estimates of 35,000 elephants and 50,000 elephants.
But there were a good fifty or sixty of them here, no matter how you counted.
Now began kind of a slow motion dance as the two canoes tried to edge as close to the elephants as possible. The problem, explained the guide in a whisper, wasn’t that they’d all run away, like a herd of impala. The problem was that they might charge the canoes and kill us.
This made sense, actually. Fifty or sixty elephants, most with large, sharp ivory tusks, and each elephant weighing probably as much as half a dozen Cape buffalo—why would they consider running away from two canoes? Especially canoes with such silly paddles.
That said, they were very, very aware of us, and at least mildly concerned. The elephants were not concerned for their own safety. But they were paranoid about their babies. Maybe ten percent of the herd consisted of baby elephants, which were about the size of a single Cape buffalo, but with no tusks at all. The babies like to nestle in as close under the legs of their parents as they can get. Elephants that had babies near them were very concerned about the canoes. And occasionally they tried to make a point by turning their massive heads towards us, lowering their long tusks in an obvious attack posture, and then lurching forward half a step or so. Several times an elephant, with lowered tusks, actually ran five or ten feet into the river towards us, water splashing every which way. These maneuvers were extremely threatening and the point came through loud and clear: “You try to eat my baby, and you’re going to end up as shish kebab on my tusks!”
It certainly worked in my case. I completely discarded the plans I’d made to sneak in and grab one of the baby elephants and haul it screaming back into the canoe where I could devour it at leisure.
Of course I couldn’t be sure what the Germans might do.
We engaged in this intricate dance for half an hour—the canoes silently paddling closer and closer, until several of the elephants would lower their tusks and one or two would run towards us. Then we’d retreat from the shore, watch from a distance, and then edge closer once again.
During one of these advances my guide pointed out something in the trees, beyond the elephant herd. A female lion was walking softly through the bush, looking at the elephants.
But she didn’t want to end up as shish kebab either, and finally walked away, choosing not to attack.
I was beginning to understand why it was such a strict rule about not getting out of the Land Rover, or not setting foot on the shore.
It was a jungle out there.
Wild animals were all over the place. And most of them were either looking for food or ready to defend, to the death, their children from becoming food.
And as humans we simply aren’t equipped to play in that ring. I thought about all the skills I’d acquired over the years: my knowledge of marketing, my ability to write good advertising copy, my fabulous speeches about the Internet, my skill as a micro-light pilot… All those things would be meaningless if I were to set foot on shore. Measured by Botswana standards, I would be nothing more than a piece of defenseless raw meat.
I assuaged my ego by reflecting on the fact that if one of these elephants were to sit at my chair back in the office he’d probably make all kinds of incorrect business decisions, and would probably run the company into the ground in less than a decade.
On the other hand maybe not. There might be something to be said for a management style in which an elephant—sitting in the CEO’s chair—would simply respond to anyone coming in with a problem, or a need for a decision, by lowering his tusks and lurching forward viciously. As in: “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions, ivory bait!” Or: “Solve it yourself, or you can eat my tusks, baboon brain!”
Be that as it may, these elephants hadn’t come down to the river to discuss management theory, they’d come to drink the water. And drink it they did. Walking into the river about up to their knees they’d lower their massive trunk—the business end of an elephant—into the water and drink long and deeply. As these fifty or sixty elephants inhaled the river, you could almost feel the water level dropping. The rainy season having long since passed, I could almost imagine these elephants sucking the river dry and putting a temporary end to Victoria Falls, 100 miles downstream.
Finally the elephants had had their fill. Ponderously leaving the river they climbed the slight bank and ambled back into the bush—there to continue their depredations by ripping apart trees, trampling bushes, scaring birds, and leaving large piles of elephant droppings in their wake.
We continued downstream.
“People of Botswana, very unhappy about elephants,” explained my guide. “They destroy everything, eat all the food. The herds keep multiplying. Over sixty thousand elephants now in Chobe. Big problem for environment. But we can’t shoot elephants. We have no way to stop them. I think someday, maybe the elephants drive out all the people. There will be no food left for us.”
All of this was very true. Since coming to Chobe the one thing I’d learned was that elephants are environmental disaster units on legs. What elephants have done to Chobe would make even Mt. St. Helens jealous. You can be pro-environment, or you can be pro-elephant, but you can’t be both.
Actually, I knew the answer to the elephant problem. There is one way to be both pro-elephant and pro-environment. The elephant problem resulted from environmentalists not being trained in the laws of economics. Fact A: elephants are prized for their ivory. There is a huge market of buyers for it. Fact B: To get the ivory, people will kill the elephants, and this will cause the elephants (in some places) to become an endangered species. Fact C: Responding to environmentalist concerns, African governments have passed laws making it illegal to kill elephants or to trade in ivory. Fact D: This hugely reduces the supply of ivory, driving the price into the stratosphere. Fact E: With ivory so profitable, a market is immediately created for poachers, who are willing to break the law in their pursuit of a buck. Fact F: A vicious circle is thus created. The more effective the governments are at stopping the ivory trade, the higher will go the price of the ivory, the more profitable it will be, and the more the poachers will kill the elephants, shrinking the herds, and driving up the price still further. Fact G: In places where the authorities really are able to stop the poachers, the elephants will multiply all out of control, and a situation will develop like Botswana’s, where there are actually too many elephants, and their damage to the environment can only be compared to the Allies’ fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II.
Any free-market economist can solve a problem like this before breakfast. If the goal is to increase the supply of elephants, without damaging the environment, then make it legal for people to set aside land to raise elephants, and legal to sell the ivory they are able to harvest from their herds.
If this plan were ever adopted everything would immediately be fixed. Elephants would thrive on large tracts of land set aside by the landowners. The landowners would kill (harvest) the elephants and their ivory in a way that would nonetheless keep the herd prospering. The elephants would only damage land set aside for them anyway, and the owners of the land wouldn’t mind the damage, because it was their land, and they’d be making so much money on the ivory.
People who were farmers, on the other hand, wouldn’t have to worry about the elephants eating their crops, because the elephants would be confined to areas that they were supposed to be in.
Sound utopian? Try this thought experiment. Let’s say the U.S. government decided that cows were an endangered species, and flatly outlawed the sale or consumption of beef products of all kinds, as well as the killing of cattle. Now go fifty years in the future, and lets assume the law has been continuously in force, and has actually been enforced. How many cows will there be in the United States? The answer: almost none. Who’s going to use their valuable land to raise cows, when you can’t do anything with them? In place of all the cows we have today, you’ll have hogs, and sheep, and chickens, and various other kinds of animals that can be sold profitably. Cows will have virtually disappeared.
But let’s say there’s a place where there still are some cows wandering around. Being illegal to kill them they’ll wander wherever they wish: into farmlands, consuming crops right and left, and making farmers furious.
This is precisely the situation that has happened with elephants because of the absurd bans on ivory.
Now, wouldn’t you think that somewhere, some country would have tried going the free market route and making it legal to use private land to raise elephants, and legal to sell the ivory?
Yes, some country did do precisely that. The country is Zimbabwe. Guess what. The Zimbabwe elephant population soared, and everyone is happy. The elephants are happy, because their population is soaring and they’re well fed. The farmers are happy, because the elephants don’t go near their farms. The people who provide the land for the elephants are happy because they’re making money off the elephants, and it’s a good investment.
Who isn’t happy? The environmentalists back in the U.S. who persist in making it illegal to trade in ivory or ivory products. As a result, the Zimbabwe elephants farmers have had to stockpile a large amount of unsold ivory. The quantity of ivory in Zimbabwe warehouses is growing, because the world by and large still won’t tolerate the ivory trade. If this persists, the economics of elephant farming will collapse, and when that happens Zimbabwe elephant ranchers won’t raise elephants anymore, the elephant herds will start declining, and pretty soon you’ll have a situation like Kenya, where they’ve almost completely wiped out the elephants through their strict ivory bans.
The correctness of the free market approach is so obvious to anyone who’s studied it that even the World Wildlife Fund has now gone on record as supporting the Zimbabwe model, and supporting the elimination of the ivory ban. In fact, the WWF is now the primary group lobbying against the ivory ban, because they know it is the ivory ban and the ivory ban alone that is wiping out the elephants.
I was tempted to get into this whole subject with my guide, but I was having enough trouble just trying to get the kayak paddle to work right, all the while getting drenched as I rotated the blades in and out of the water. It was not the time to discuss elephant politics.
And anyway we had to hurry back to the Game Lodge to catch the 3:00pm game drive—the last activity of the day.
Elephant Encounter #2
This time I was sharing the Land Rover with an American woman, her ten year old son, and an older gentleman—name of Carl—who apparently was the woman’s uncle.
Carl was the classic Great White Hunter. Perhaps late sixties, white hair, very trim and muscular, beard and mustache, and a safari hat that looked like it had seen plenty of action. Carl and I were in the back of the open-air vehicle, and spent a fair amount of time talking. He’d been all over Africa, and I discovered he was somehow connected with the tourist industry.
“So, what’s your favorite game park?” I asked, hoping he’d say “Chobe” and thus eliminate any pressure on my part to see all the others.
He thought about it long and hard.
“Actually, I don’t think I have a favorite. They’re all different. Chobe is very nice.”
“What’s Chobe have that the others don’t?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Elephants. They say there are over 70,000 elephants in Chobe park. Did you know that?”
“Are elephants unusual?”
“Oh, definitely. If you go to most of the game parks, in Tanzania or South Africa or Kenya, you might never see an elephant. Everyone knows that if you want to see elephants you go to Chobe.”
“One thing I haven’t seen here,” I said, “are vast herds of antelope or wildebeests, zebras or the kind of things you see on the animal channel back in the states.”
“Well, you don’t have the vast plains here, like you do in Kenya, for example. The country is too forested. But they still have those animals here. Just not in the same numbers.”
“So there are zebras in Chobe?”
“Certainly. You never know what you’ll see on a game drive.”
“What I’d really like to see is a giraffe. Are there giraffes in Chobe?”
“Oh I would expect so. I’ll keep my eyes open for one, certainly.”
We were in an open area now, with high grass and tall mounds of dirt scattered across the countryside. These were ant-hills, I knew. Some over six feet high. Several dozen impala were scattered about. And scattered about among the impala were an equal number of baboons. All of these animals were wandering around nibbling on grass. It seemed like nearly half the baboons were having sex with the other half, but that didn’t bother the impala—they weren’t in the least prudish about it. There were also five or six little squirrel-like creatures, standing up on the hind legs, looking around at the activities.
“What are those?” I asked Dave.
As we continued our game drive, Dave began regaling me with stories about people being eaten by wild animals.
“A few years ago there were some Japanese boys driving their own Land Rover through Chobe. They came upon a lion sleeping beside the road, looking quite harmless. The got out, and one boy stood beside the lion, while the other took his picture. The lion killed them both. That’s why you never, ever want to get out of the Land Rover in one of these parks.”
“Actually, I’ve spent most of my time today on the river. Are the rivers dangerous, do you think?”
“Last year a guy was using one of those long sticks to push his canoe up the river. He was a tourist, and one of the natives was letting him try the stick. The stick got stuck in the mud on one push, and the guy was pulled half into the water when he held onto it. Croc grabbed him by the neck and killed him.”
I was digesting these rather gruesome stories just at the point where we came upon some lions—five of them. It was OK, though They were at least a hundred yards away from the road, lying down in the tall grass and—like yesterday—not especially interested in the Land Rover although they’d glance over at us occasionally. It seems likely that when a lion sees a Land Rover, he doesn’t see it as a strange contraption with several mammals inside. I think a lion sees a Land Rover, and the people in it, as a single entity. Probably the lions over in the field were looking at us thinking “Ah yes, another of those strange multi-headed things that growl whenever they move, and smell horrid and have a very stiff hide in general except for the areas leading up to the multiple heads. Can’t imagine what one tastes like, and have no desire to find out. Anyway they’re quite large, and would no doubt be troublesome to bring down. You could grab one of the necks with your jaws, but that wouldn’t kill it because it has so many damn necks!”
As I was thinking through how we no doubt appear to the lions, I was startled to find that another lion had crept up on us—not in a slinky, ‘about to pounce’ way, but it had just walked up to our Land Rover and was now walking down the left side of it, no more than a foot away from the tires—no more than six feet away from me. I was uneasy about this and began to wonder how certain we all were that this lion would not just hop deftly into the back of the Land Rover and kill everyone inside in about three seconds. Certainly it could do so. We didn’t even have a window we could roll up, as the Land Rover was completely without a top or sides of any sort.
But no one else seemed especially concerned, least of all the lion, who just walked on past, and then continued walking—down the road. Maybe a lion had once tried to bite a Land Rover’s bumper and came away convinced that the multi-headed thing just wasn’t edible in the least, and had spread the word to the other lions, and that was why lions now leave Land Rovers alone.
But it was also understandable why everything might change once a person climbed out of a Land Rover. It would appear—to a lion—like the multi-headed thing was coming apart. It would be as if a chunk of an elephant fell off suddenly, and started walking around on its own. Certainly a lion might attack a walking elephant chunk and, equally so, a broken-off piece of multi-headed beast. But as long as we stayed in the Land Rover—as long as we didn’t come apart—the lion would stick with his preferred single-necked game. Not that the lions feared us, of course. Quite the contrary. In fact maybe it was a need to prove dominance, or lack of fear, that caused the lion to walk so close to us and make a point of looking utterly bored as it went by. It occurred to me that we might retaliate by driving over to the five lying-down lions, and then driving right past them about a foot away, with all of our multiple heads not bothering to even so much as glance at them. Boy, wouldn’t that get a lion’s dander up!
It became obvious that the lions could ignore us longer than we could ignore them so eventually our driver started up the engine and drove away. After about twenty minutes without seeing anything except birds we came to a slight rise overlooking the Chobe River. Just below us was a herd of elephants enjoying the water. Our driver stopped the Land Rover and we gazed at them for awhile, but I’d gazed at elephants earlier in the day from a canoe and these looked pretty similar.
After a few moments I was about to make some dismissive comment about if you’ve seen one elephant, you’ve seen them all, when the situation changed. Having enjoyed their fill of water the elephants decided it was time to leave. And, more or less together, they all turned away from the river and started walking up the bank. 200 elephants, walking up the bank, obviously planning to cross the road, with us—a single Land Rover—stopped dead in the middle of that road.
Carl and I looked at each other, each thinking the same thing. “Well, this could get interesting,” said Carl.
Here they came, not quickly, all the time in the world. Finally condescending to notice the Land Rover, the massive herd split into two halves, and the elephants began walking around us. Soon the Land Rover was a tiny island in a vast elephant ocean—a small boat adrift on a sea of pachyderms.
As had been true earlier in the day, it was the elephants tending babies who were the most concerned about us. But at least in the canoes we’d been twenty or thirty feet away. Here the elephants were right on top of us—giant glacial walls scraping against the Land Rover and seeking to erode it to dust—or at least not minding if they eroded it to dust. The elephants with babies, whose path chanced them to walk past the Land Rover, considered the Land Rover a threat. To an elephant, the Land Rover apparently was classified as a carnivore waiting for a chance to pounce on one of the babies. And they didn’t like us at all. Every baby-shielding elephant which walked by actually charged the Land Rover, in that head-lowered, tusks sharpened, jerky attack motion we’d seen from the canoes. They never actually crashed into the vehicle. But they would stop only inches from it. Only inches from me, actually, since I was standing up in the back.
This was not at all a pleasant experience. I remembered fondly the lions that had insulted us with their indifference, and I began to wish that the elephants would try a similar tactic. I was ready to be ignored by these elephants. I would have been thrilled to be ignored. But the elephants were determined to convince us that they were ready to defend their young, and that we might as well give up now. Each elephant felt the need to make this statement, to prove this point as it walked by, until I was ready to scream “OK, OK, I won’t eat your babies!!! I was only kidding about being hungry! Geez, can’t you take a joke?”
Forty five minutes went by, and three rolls of film had been consumed, before the several hundred elephants had finally passed and we were allowed to proceed on down the dusty road.
We were heading home now, and it was twilight, the sun having set while we’d been caught in the elephant herd. It had been a very successful game drive: impala, kudu, baboons, mongooses, lions, and lots and lots of elephants.
And then the driver pulled off to the side of the road, and quickly shut down the engine. “Over there!” he said, pointing. I looked for awhile, seeing nothing, and then they appeared.
Five gigantic necks were gracefully walking through a forest of low trees. Giraffes! This was the one animal I was most hoping to see. I couldn’t see them very well. They were at least a hundred yards away, and the light was fading fast. As I watched one of them paused, and began chewing on some leaves. The rest continued, gracefully walking through the forest like resurrected brontosaurs in Jurassic Park. Soon they disappeared from view.
The Land Rover continued on the dusty roads of Chobe, back to the Game Lodge, as night crept over the Botswana wilderness. I was glad the driver kept his speed up, because I knew, now, that out there were millions of eyes: jungle creatures ready to begin their nocturnal depredations. I was quite happy to arrive back home, and lock my cabin door behind me.
Elephant Encounter #3
In the morning, it was yet another open-air Land Rover that was despatched to ferry me back to the border at Zimbabwe. This time after passing through the passport-stamping gauntlet I was handed off to another driver—in a VW microbus—who explained he would be taking me to the town of Victoria Falls. Just as we were about to leave, a young, blonde woman—quite pretty actually— opened the door and hopped in beside me in the back seat.
“Hello,” I said, trying to be friendly and not act too surprised.
“Hi!” she smiled back.
Eventually her story came out, along with her name.
Janie worked as a tour leader for one of those Trans-Africa tour companies which operate the large trucks that could be seen occasionally on the road, ferrying people on long, multi-week safaris across the continent. Clare, my administrative assistant, has a close friend who also is a young, blonde, and pretty tour guide on these large Trans-Africa safari trucks. It seemed strange that such women are chosen for these kinds of roles, but then maybe that’s what breaks up the monotony for the guests, and guarantees re-bookings. Janie was originally from England, as was Clare’s friend, confirming my impression of how entrenched the British still are in this part of Africa. Now she lived in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. She was going there today, on break from leading safari trucks across Botswana.
As we were driving down the highway, talking about the safari business, the microbus suddenly slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road, finally coming to a complete halt.
The reason for the stop was obvious: a massive elephant stood in the middle of the highway—fifty yards ahead of us. I was something of an expert on elephants by this time, and yet here was one larger than I’d ever seen—at least fifty percent larger than anything from yesterday’s herds. This elephant had no baby to protect, but a vengeful, sinister air surrounded it. It’s long, thick tusks were turned towards us, threateningly. And it was making the same kinds of repeated “charging feints” I had become accustomed to.
There was no doubt about it. This elephant wanted a duel. This elephant wanted the VW microbus to attack. This elephant wanted to skewer the microbus and fling it over its head into the bush on the other side of the highway—stomping it into a crumbled, flat, chrome pancake that it could kick around for awhile with its feet before urinating on it contemptuously.
I grabbed my camera and reached for the door, determined to get a great picture of this massive beast.
Janie grabbed my arm and pulled me back in. “No!” she said, admonishingly. “Do not get out.”
“Do you think he’s really dangerous?”
“Of course he’s dangerous! That’s a rogue elephant. There’s nothing more dangerous in Africa.”
“So, like, what’s he doing here?”
“He’s looking for something to fight. Do you know what a rogue elephant is?”
I had to admit that I didn’t. Apparently all the elephant knowledge I’d gained yesterday didn’t cover this situation.
“A rogue elephant,” explained Janie, “was once the lead male elephant in a herd. Eventually a younger male will contest his dominance, and will win. The defeated male has no choice but to leave the herd, and so he does—wandering alone in the wilderness. And basically mad as hell.”
“Yeah, this one looks really pissed.”
“He is. You’d be too, if someone stole your herd.”
We sat motionless in the VW for at least ten minutes, which is what one does in Zimbabwe when a Rogue elephant is blocking the road. Zimbabwe is not known for crowded highways and in all that time no other cars appeared. Finally the elephant decided the VW was wimping out. Trunk held high, he gave a final bellowing snort—obviously declaring victory—and crashed off into the bush.
Our driver started the engine and resumed his course towards Victoria Falls.
We stopped again at the intersection leading to the Vic Falls airport and I had to say good-bye to Janie. She was looking forward to a break from safari life and would be on a plane in less than an hour.
The VW continued down the highway and soon we were entering the town of Victoria Falls.
The town of Victoria Falls exists for the same reason the town of Niagara Falls exists: because of the falls. Tourists love to come here, and the first was David Livingstone who discovered the falls in 1855 and named them after his queen. As the British tried to add the entire continent of Africa to their empire in the nineteenth century, empire-builders like Cecil Rhodes dreamed of a railroad linking Cape Town to Cairo—that is, a British railroad. Rhodes didn’t care about the railroad itself. He envisioned it as a means of spreading British influence the entire length of the continent.
A great deal of this railroad actually got built, and eventually even Victoria Falls—deep in the heart of the continent—was connected by rail to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Knowing they had a tourist bonanza in hand, the first thing the railroad company did at Vic Falls was build a large hotel: the Victoria Falls Hotel.
The Victoria Falls hotel is now an historical landmark—a jewel of nineteenth century British culture dropped in the middle of the African jungle.
The Vic Falls hotel was where my driver was taking me, for it was there that I would be met—later in the day—by another driver who would take me to the canoe safari on the Zambezi river.
The town of Victoria Falls is a not-surprising combination of third-world Africa and 20th century tourist-trap. This blend manifests itself as a large collection of run down, seedy, t-shirt shops and souvenir stands. Various storefronts boast of “river-rafting tours”, “bungee-jumping”, “bicycle rentals”, “airplane tours of the falls”, “dinner excursions on the Zambezi river,” and the like. Massive safari trucks carrying parties of young travelers, were parked here and there, or were driving slowly through the streets. There were plenty of Land Rovers, and even some RV’s that looked like they’d driven through the Sahara Desert to get here. Tourists were walking around in considerable numbers: mostly young European-types, but also dignified, elderly couples that you could almost guarantee were British.
And there was no shortage of blacks. These were not South Africa-type blacks. These blacks were dressed in colorful fabrics, and the women—often as not—were carrying things on their heads. The vast array of what I saw women carrying on their heads could only be matched by what the Chinese carry on bicycles in Tiananmen Square. In this case I saw cardboard boxes, polystyrene water bottles, large piles of tied-together vegetables, brass kettles, baskets of beans, firewood, and the like. And there was one more thing I saw every woman in Zimbabwe carrying: a baby. Zimbabwean women have shamelessly copied the American invention known as a “Snugli,”— a contraption made of strong cloth which attaches over a woman’s shoulders and which is an ideal way to carry an infant.
The patent-attorneys for Snugli would go nuts if they saw what was happening in Zimbabwe: every woman of child-bearing age had a cloth draped around their back with a baby wrapped inside—as brazen a case of patent infringement as I’ve ever seen.
The town of Victoria Falls itself is not large, probably no more than a few thousand permanent residents. It sits on a mildly sloping hillside, and of course what it’s sloping towards is the Zambezi—one of the largest and most important rivers in Africa. Just above Victoria Falls the Zambezi is over a mile wide.
Things are going along nicely for the wide river when all of a sudden the bottom quite literally drops out from under it. The entire river goes off a cliff. And as the river is over a mile wide at this point, it’s almost as if a river is flowing sideways over the falls.
What the river flows sideways into is no less than a sheer chasm, with walls so high and so close together that the water actually hits the other side before it hits the bottom—producing fantastic plumes of spray. This spray is lifted upwards by violent air-currents, hundreds of feet into the air, making a perpetual veil of mist hang over Victoria Falls. This spray is so intense that during the heart of the rainy season, when billions of gallons of water are cascading into the chasm every minute, the falls are quite simply invisible. At those times Victoria Falls, seemingly as modest as the time-period in which she was named, generates her own veils and drapes them completely around her, shyly protecting herself from the eyes of lascivious tourists and their impudent cameras.
After furiously crashing into the opposite wall of the chasm, the waters of the river fall into a narrow gorge, which runs at right angles to the flow of the river itself. Thus after enduring the indignity of dropping over a cliff, the river now finds itself trapped between two massive walls of rock. Instead of a mile-wide river flowing east, suddenly the Zambezi has become a twenty-foot wide river flowing north. And if you think the Zambezi is happy about this turn of events you would be wrong. The Zambezi, at this point, is a rogue elephant on a rampage, desperate to escape this horrible, confining gorge, and go east again.
And escape it, it does. Somewhere in its geologic past, the Zambezi found a way to break out of this wrong-way gorge. It essentially has sliced an opening for itself through the sheer rock, and here it turns a corner and forces its way, in serpentine fashion, through deep canyons that—though narrow—nonetheless allow it to continue its flow eastward, towards its appointed rendezvous with the Indian Ocean at the Mozambique coast.
So what we have here, stepping back for a moment, is the world’s most placid and somnolent river—it’s waist-belt opened a full mile in width. And then, in the space of a few dozen yards, it is rudely awakened and tossed over a cliff. It emerges, not surprisingly, as one of the world’s most angry, violent, and treacherous watercourses.
So above the falls what has developed is an industry of pontoon boats that offers relaxing dinner sunset-cruises. Below the falls you have the river-rafters and kayakers enjoying fabulous white-water rapids. And spanning the ferocious river directly below the falls is the Victoria Falls Bridge, one of the highest suspension bridges in the world. And of course where you have a high suspension bridge you have bungee jumping. And in the air above all this activity are the helicopters and fixed wing planes roaring about giving tourists even more interesting views. All in all it’s quite a place, and fully-deserving of the tourist industry that has developed.
The grounds of the Victoria Falls Hotel were impeccable as the VW drove through the entrance, past lush gardens, courtyard gates, and around a small fountain. Bellmen rushed up as we stopped, eager to be of service. They did an excellent job of hiding their dismay at my appearance: jeans, safari shirt, ragged sun hat, and backpack. On the other hand, I reasoned, they must have been accustomed over the years to rich white men, back from a hunting trip in the bush, checking into the Victoria Falls Hotel and in need of a good shower. After all, it was not my appearance that was out of place here in the heart of Africa, it was this 5-star luxury landmark hotel.
But in fact I was not checking in, and was not going to be able to take a shower. It was one in the afternoon by this time, and my instructions from the travel agent indicated I would be picked up at 3:30 here in the lobby. I did have time to walk around town a bit, and have lunch at a “Wimpy’s” hamburger restaurant—more proof of the British entrenchment in the region.
I was unclear what I was to bring with me on the canoe safari. I would be staying overnight. It would likely get cold in the evenings, but be hot on the river. I wasn’t sure if we’d be carrying our luggage with us in the canoes themsleves, or how that worked, exactly. Not wanting to be overly-encumbered, I finally managed to sqeeze the few things I’d need for the trip into my tiny day-pack, and checked my main travel pack with the hotel bellman. I was traveling very light now, perhaps too light, but I suspected that on a canoe safari the more you brought, the more there would be too get wet.
The Safari Camp
It was yet another Land Rover which picked me up at the hotel. We drove west out of town, which meant we were heading upstream as far as the Zambezi River was concerned. This event had been billed as a “two-day canoe safari” on the Zambezi, but it clearly wasn’t going to be two days. My driver explained that I was being taken to the safari camp. Others were already there, after canoeing this morning and afternoon. I would stay at the camp overnight, in a tent apparently, and then I would be on the river the entire day tomorrow.
I began to have mild social misgivings. I’d be joining some existing group which had probably already bonded after fighting river rapids all day to get to their present camp. Meanwhile I, an outsider, was being daintily ferried by car from the posh Victoria Falls Hotel. How could they see me as anything other than scum? And who would these people be, anyway? Certainly not honeymooning British couples. Probably they all knew each other and were friends from wherever they came from. I’d be a stranger, and perhaps only grudgingly admitted into their tight coterie.
Suddenly the driver hit the brakes. The Land Rover came to a stop, and he began backing up slowly. Finally he stopped again, and pointed at the road, just outside his window.
“There!” he said. “Snake. Big snake! Look at big snake!”
Sure enough, there was one big snake right there in the road. It was over four feet long, and almost as thick as my arm.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Snake. Big snake.”
“Yeah, but I mean what kind of snake?”
“I think maybe this snake, she is what they call a ‘pit adder.’ You very lucky, see pit adder this close.”
“Do you think it’s dangerous?”
“Pit adder most poisonous snake in Africa. This snake bite you, you die very quick!”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, pit adder very dangerous snake.”
“Well, speaking for myself, I think I’ve seen enough of this snake. How about you?”
“OK, we leave now. You very lucky, see this snake!”
Yeah, I couldn’t believe the luck I was having today. A rogue elephant in the morning. And Africa’s most deadly snake in the afternoon. I was having so much fun I almost couldn’t stand it.
We drove for an hour and a half and the highway had once again given way to a rugged dirt track only a Land Rover could love. Finally we came over a small rise and there, in the forest, I could see a row of tents pitched beside a river. This wasn’t the Zambezi River. It was too small. Perhaps it was a tributary. I climbed out of the Land Rover somewhat apprehensively, slung my daypack over my shoulder, and walked down into the camp. The first thing I noticed were half a dozen people sitting in camp chairs around an open fire. All were white, and looked young, perhaps in their twenties. Two of them were women. One of these women, a blonde girl wearing a cottony skirt, sandals, and a tank top, got up from her chair and rushed over to me.
“You’re the new guy, right?”
“Yep, I’m the new guy!”
“Uh, how would you like a cold beer?”
She asked this hesitantly, as if wary of my response. But it didn’t seem like a trick question.
“Damn, I’d kill for a cold beer!” I said, smiling.
“Yaaaay!” she cried. “He’s one of us!” she called out to the others still seated by the fire.
The blonde girl hurried off to get me a cold beer, and the “others” got up from their camp chairs and came over, warmly shaking my hand and introducing themselves.
Soon I was seated around the camp fire myself, drinking a cold beer, and feeling like I’d re-discovered long-lost friends.
“So what’s the deal?” I asked, inhibition fading quickly. “What did you mean ‘he’s one of us’?” I directed this question at the girl who I learned was named Patti.
“We were really worried,” explained Patti. “You see, there’s two groups here. There’s us—we’re just normal people, as you can tell. And then there’s this other group.”
“What’s wrong with the other group?”
“Well there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them, exactly. But, well, they’re all born-again Christian ministers!”
“A bunch of Christian ministers came on a canoe safari to Zimbabwe?”
“Yeah, not only that, but one couple is on their honeymoon. They invited their minister friends—and their wives— to come along on their honeymoon. Do you believe it!”
Actually that part I could believe. When my best friend John Wood had gotten married in Honolulu, he’d invited his friends to come with him on his honeymoon to Kauai. It had been great. Maybe these ministers had the right idea.
“So anyway,” continued Patti. There’s six of us, and six of them. And we knew some new guy was going to be joining us tonight. But we didn’t know if he’d be one of us or one of them. And if he was one of them, they’d outnumber us! That’s why I was so happy when you said ‘Damn, I’d kill for a cold beer!” Now we outnumber them.
So we all sat around the fireplace, drinking our heathen potions, and started getting acquainted. I started with Patti, whose story came out quickly enough. She was an American from Tennessee, but presently lived in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania where she worked in a pregnancy counseling center. Patti helped young Tanzanian girls decide what to do about their pregnancies. She was heavily immersed in the world of teenage births, the AIDS epidemic, unwed mothers, contraceptives, and the like.
“So what do you do back in the states?” asked Patti.
“Well, I’m on vacation right now,” I explained. “But back in the states I’m a full-time political organizer. I’m one of the guys who organizes those Operation Rescue demonstrations outside abortion clinics. The movement’s gaining, and just last week we shut down three of them in Massachusetts.”
Patti’s jaw dropped open and she stared at me, a look of utter, absolute, horror on her face.
“Just kidding!” I said, with a big grin.
She threw an empty beer can at me and then almost fell off her chair, she was laughing so hard.
Actually, Patti was married, and her husband was in the group as well. But it seemed almost a menage a trois. The young couple had a very good friend, Hans, who—apparently—lived with them, and was with them now. Patti and her husband Brian were Americans living in Tanzania. Hans was an East German, who worked for Gore-Tex in the U.S., but who was vacationing for three months by staying with Brian and Patti. It was all very confusing, but they seemed to have a lot of fun together.
“Oh, we’re just the best of friends, the absolute best of friends,” explained Patti, explaining her relationship with Hans. “We’ve seen each other naked more times than we can count. It doesn’t mean anything at all. We’re just the best of friends.”
I wondered how Brian felt about their friendship. But Brian was the quiet type. Actually everyone in the group was the quiet type except for Patti. She could have kept the party going even if she’d been alone.
The only things Brian seemed to care about were environmental issues. He’d sit there quietly, staring at the fire, drinking beer, and have no opinion about anything until the talk would turn to the environment. Then he’d head off on whole highways of loquatiousness, talking about how terrible it was that we were destroying the environment. The monologue would continue for five or ten minutes, and then he’d abruptly shut up, and go back to staring at the fire. It was hard to know which was smoldering more.
The only thing I seemed to have in common with Hans was Gore-Tex.
“So, you really work for Gore-Tex? I’ve never met a person who actually worked for Gore-Tex. That’s like, really weird.”
“Yeah, I know,” agreed Hans. “It’s weird, but that’s where I work. Gore-Tex.”
Grasping at straws, I felt it appropriate to tell him the only Gore-Tex story I knew.
“I have a Gore-Tex rain parka,” I explained. “Bought it fifteen years ago. Now it won’t keep the rain off anymore.”
“That was the old version of Gore-Tex, fifteen years ago,” said Hans. “It didn’t last as long. Send the parka back to Gore-Tex. They’ll replace it for free.”
“Yeah, they don’t care. They have lots of money. Lots of Gore-Tex.”
Wow, this canoe safari was proving profitable. I was going to end up with a new Gore-Tex rain parka!
And if I ever needed pregnancy counseling in Dar Es Salaam, I knew where to get that, too!
Actually I was very envious of Patti, Hans, and Brian, because they were leading such a life of adventure. Here I was in the wilderness of Zimbabwe, sitting around a camp-fire on a canoe safari, and to me this was pretty cool. But to Patti, Hans, and Brian, the canoe safari was an anti-climax. Last week they’d climbed Mt. Kilomanjaro.
Climbing Mt. Kilomanjaro is one of those items on my “must do” life experiences’ list—which I know I’ll never do.
“Was it hard?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was pretty hard,” said Patti. “We took seven days just to get to the summit. If you really press it you can do it in five days, but we were like, why hurry?”
Yeah, why hurry? Ahh, to be in your twenties again…
There were two others guys in the group: Peter and Vin, South African university students, from Cape Town. They didn’t say much, just drank beer, and laughed whenever anyone made a joke.
Rounding out the group of six was Martha, a rather heavy-set woman from Sydney, Australia. Perhaps in her late twenties, Martha was a marketing manager for a large “consumer products” company based in Sydney. She gave me the name, which I didn’t recognize. But then she mentioned some of their more famous brands in the U.S., and several of these I’d heard of—mostly in the area of cleansers and disinfectants. She’d come to Johannesburg on business for her company and was now taking a side trip, much like me.
And the final person around the camp fire was Keeta, a black Zimbabwean, and kind of a “guide in training” with the safari company. He didn’t say much either. He drank beer, and laughed whenever anyone made a joke. All in all, kind of a quiet group, except for Patti who just couldn’t quit talking. And me, who was very curious about everything.
“So what kind of canoeing did you do today?” I asked.
“Today sucked,” said Brian. “Really slow water, we had to paddle the whole way. No rapids.”
“Better tomorrow,” chipped in Vin from Cape Town. “Lots of big rapids tomorrow.”
“Yeah, and we only canoed for a few hours this morning,” added Brian.
“Only a few hours? You mean you got here that quickly?”
“No, no,” explained Patti. “This safari camp is a permanent camp. You sleep here every night. “The trucks took us upriver and then we canoed for a ways, and then they brought us back here.”
“Oh, so it’s not like a real canoe safari, where you camp in a different place every night? It’s not like a ‘trip’ in other words?”
“Well look around you,” said Patti. “Does this look like a temporary camp?”
I hadn’t thought about it, but the truth was the tents did look quite large, and very well staked down. There was even a big wooden table over under the trees.
“They even have a real toilet, inside that tent over there,” explained Patti.
“A toilet in a tent? You mean like a Porta-potty?”
“No. It’s a real toilet, it flushes and everything,” said Hans.
Running water? How could they have running water inside a tent? But there was something else more important to discover.
“By the way, does anyone know which tent I’m sleeping in?”
“Yeah, you’re in that very last one, down at the end,” said Patti.
“It’s the only one left. They’ve put Hans with Martha.”
This engendered some snickering and good-natured kidding. Apparently the safari company simply placed people together randomly in the tents. As I was the odd man, I had a tent to myself. Hans was still with Martha, even though it would probably have made more sense to put Hans with me. Thinking I should check out my tent during what was left of the daylight, I left the group and walked down to the end of the tents, poking my head inside the last one.
There were two cots, with actual bedding. Certainly it would be comfortable enough.
Back at the campfire the ministers were returning.
“Where have they been?” I asked Patti, who explained that the ministers and their wives had been on a walking tour. A “bush walk.”
“You know I was just kidding about them,” said Patti. “They’re very nice people, actually.”
The ministers and their wives took their places around the campfire, and it was true they didn’t have any beer, but they did seem like nice people. One forgets names, but there was a Bill and a Tom and at least one Liz. Also joining us was the safari leader, Jules—a white guy, tall, handsome, a look of competence about him.
Soon we were called to dinner—buffet style. Someone had been cooking dinner and had even set a large tablecloth over the long wooden table. We were dished up, in turn, and took our places although by now it was too dark to know what we were eating. I’m sure it was good, though. A full moon appeared from behind the trees, and began its ascent. The temperature was perfect, and the night was still. A pitcher of wine made the rounds, and everyone became quite friendly.
I glanced at my watch and did some mental arithmetic. “Just think,” I announced, “Right now it’s morning rush hour in New York City. People are packed into subways, in sweltering heat and humidity. That’s going on right this minute. Isn’t that weird?”
“Do you think that world actually exists?” questioned Patti. “It seems so impossible. Maybe it’s just some bad dream, and this is reality.”
We discussed the metaphysics of reality for awhile, and—by natural association—soon got to religion.
“So, like, what denomination are you guys?” asked Patti, not one to beat around the bush.
“We’re non-denominational,” explained Bill, a middle-aged, overweight, very friendly pastor.
“And what’s that mean, exactly?” pressed Patti, suddenly curious about religion.
“Well, we’re not part of any organized religion. We’re just an independent church—a Christian church. We believe what we believe. We don’t have a national hierarchy telling us what to believe.”
“So are all of you from the same church? Is that how you know each other?”
“Oh no,” chipped in Tom, an almost-identical middle-aged, overweight friendly pastor. “I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bill here’s from Savannah, Georgia. Pete’s from Florida.
“But then how do you know each other?”
“Well, we get together several times a year at our minister conventions.”
“Minister conventions?” Now I was curious. “What do you do at those conventions?” I asked.
“Oh, we compare doctrine, debate religious beliefs, try to come to agreement on issues of faith,” explained Bill.
“You try to reach consensus on issues of faith?”
“Yeah, we try to keep each other in line.”
“I don’t get it,” I confessed. “If you try to keep each other in line on issues of faith, that sounds like you are an organized religion, and there is a national hierarchy telling you what to believe.”
“Yeah, to some extent that’s true,” responded Tom. “But it’s within very broad interpretations. You see we have to keep tabs on each other. We have to make sure we’re in line with basic Christian teachings.”
“Why? Why does it matter if one church develops on its own? Isn’t that the point of being non-denominational?”
“If we didn’t get together and compare doctrine, and make sure we were keeping in line with Christian faith, then any one of our churches could split off and become a cult. You know, like Jim Jones in Guyana. It could get out of hand. That’s why we have to keep tabs on each other.”
I looked around the table and realized we were all sitting here drinking wine in the middle of the jungle and it occurred to me that Jim Jones’s cult could have started out the same way. A few pleasant nights like this and I would have been ready to follow most anyone who could promise me more of the same.
After dinner we gathered around the campfire again—more of us this time—and the conversation turned almost immediately to elephants. Brian started off with a long diatribe about how terrible it was that we were destroying the elephant populations of Africa.
“Elephant populations not being destroyed,” said Keeta, sullenly. “Too many elephants. Elephants destroy farmland.”
“This land belonged to the elephants before it belonged to the farmers,” suggested Brian, warming to his subject. “It’s not right for us to kill the elephants just because they were grazing on land that was always theirs.”
“You might feel different, if it was your land they were grazing on,” protested Keeta, refusing to back down.
Tensions were rising fast, and I could tell that around the campfire everyone was about to choose sides in the great elephant debate. It was too nice an evening for a fist fight. I couldn’t help myself.
“OK, OK, hold on. I know how to solve the elephant problem.” And from there I launched into a ten minute explanation of how free market principals could be used to both protect the elephant, protect the environment, and feed the farmers.
After several glasses of wine, this whole concept went right over the heads of Keeta, Brian, and everyone else around the campfire, except Patti.
“I don’t think it would work in Tanzania,” she commented. “The infrastructure just isn’t there.”
“What does infrastructure have to do with it?”
“Well, if you legalized elephant farming, and permitted people to hunt for ivory, that would work only if you had a sufficient law and order system, and could keep it under control. But in Tanzania the poachers would move in as well as the legitimate hunters, and by lifting the ban on ivory you’d support the poachers more than anyone.”
There was a very good rebuttal to this argument, and I was about to deliver it, as soon as I could think of what it was. But the wine was taking its own toll on me, and I decided it was nobler to agree with her and declare defeat. Furthermore after enduring the indignity of having our road blocked by a rogue elephant that morning—being forced to sit meekly in a VW microbus while being insulted by an arrogant pachyderm—I was just as happy to see them made extinct by the ivory ban after all. Dairy cows—not being illegal to own or harvest—would inherit the earth and that was fine with me. The elephants could fight their own battles and lose them, for all I cared.
One by one we drifted off to our tents and I did the same. I couldn’t remember camping ever having been so comfortable. I’d had to do nothing to set up these tents, or to arrange dinner, or to clean up afterwards. I had merely to fall onto the cot and go to sleep, and I was well on my way to doing just that.
“Screeeeeech!!!!!” Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape. “Screeeeech!!!!”
Oh, this was just great. Some wild animal was trying to get into my tent.
“Screeech!!! Screeech!!!” Scrape, scrape. “Screeech!” Scrape, Scrape. Screeeech!” Scrape, Screech! Screetch. Scrape, Scrape Scrape.
I was mistaken. At least five wild animals were trying to get into my tent. They were coming at it from all sides. Fortunately, thanks to my experience at the Chobe Game Lodge, I knew exactly which wild animals these were: baboons. Baboons, as in: “three times the jaw strength of lions…”
I lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling of the tent in the pitch darkness, listening to the baboons trying to break in. I lay this way for a good ten minutes, doubting the baboons would ever actually get into the tent, but also knowing for a fact that it would be impossible to go to sleep while they were trying. And then I came up with a plan. I knew how I could immediately make the baboons disappear, and ensure that I would fall into a delicious, well-earned, dreamless sleep.
Reaching for my day pack, I found the sleeping pill container and took three of them. The next thing I remember it was morning, and the baboons had vanished.
Canoeing The Zambezi River
After breakfast we were to set off on day two of my “two day canoe safari.” To me it seemed like day one, since I had yet to come near a canoe. As it turned out I didn’t get near a canoe this day either. Walking over to the bank where the canoes were being organized I noticed right away that they weren’t canoes. I wasn’t sure what they were, actually. I’d never seen anything quite like them.
They were rubber. And they were inflatable. But they weren’t inflatable river rafts. Actually, they sort of were inflatable river rafts, but in the shape of a canoe. Or as close to the shape of a canoe as an inflatable river raft can get, which isn’t very close. But they did have two seats: fore and aft. And they were long and skinny, like a canoe. They were inflatable canoes, I decided finally.
That was bad enough. Much worse were the paddles. I don’t know what it is about Africa. It’s one thing to be an undeveloped continent—primitive infrastructure and the like. But can’t they import some decent canoe paddles? What’s the International Monetary Fund supposed to be for, after all? Here were those same abominable kayak things that I had learned to hate two days ago.
Inflatable canoes and kayak paddles. This was just great. I should have stayed at the Vic Falls hotel and watched TV in my room—it would have been more enjoyable.
I was teemed up with Hans for the day’s run. Martha had decided that canoeing was just not her thing, and she’d headed back to Vic Falls early that morning. Hans was quite happy about this, because apparently Martha hadn’t exactly pulled her own weight yesterday. She’d known nothing about canoeing and he’d had to do almost all the paddling. In his eyes, I was certain to be an improvement.
“Would you like to sit in the stern, or the bow?” he asked politely, as we prepared to launch.
“Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer the stern.”
The stern is the position of control. The bow paddler provides forward motion. The stern paddler steers the boat and maneuvers it through the rapids.
Actually there are three things I do well: the London subways, determining North, and steering canoes through rapids. I had no idea if I’d do well steering skinny inflatable rafts through rapids using kayak paddles, but my self-esteem required that I try.
“Do you know anything about canoeing?” asked Hans, wanting to be sure I wasn’t completely incompetent before relinquishing the stern to a paddler of unknown ability.
“A little bit,” I replied, not wanting to say more. Not wanting to mention how I was a veteran of such white-water challenges as the Androscoggin in New Hampshire, Skinner’s Falls on the Upper Delaware in Pennsylvania, the Brule in northern Wisconsin, the Cheat River in West Virginia, Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River in Colorado, or Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River itself. I didn’t bother to mention my six weeks of wilderness canoeing in Canada, or the time I’d won a canoe race against 24 other canoes at International Falls, Minnesota. Nor did I mention the time I’d canoed the run-off from an overflowing dam on the Guadulupe River in the Texas hill country, with waves so high they swamped the boat and it sank out from under us, but—by God—never tipped over as we paddled it to the bank underwater.
Here in Zimbabwe there were seven inflatable canoes, and we launched more or less simultaneously, with Hans and me in the rear. I’d missed the first day, Han’s original partner had been disappointing, and I felt I had something to prove. I dug my paddle into the water, seething whirlpools swirled around it, and our unlovely air-filled craft shot forward. Thirty seconds later we’d moved from seventh place to first, and the other canoes were disappearing fast behind us.
“Wow!” said Hans, which was exactly what I wanted him to say. “You really know how to paddle! This is going to be great!”
Keeta was our guide-in-training, and it was his job to determine if the new guy knew how to paddle a canoe. He’d been focused elsewhere and hadn’t really noticed how we’d moved from last place to first. He was alone in his inflatable craft, and paddled over to us.
“OK, I need to test your canoe skill a little bit,” said Keeta, politely.
“Please, if you don’t mind, can you turn right for me?”
I spun the canoe to the right.
“Very good. And left please, if you don’t mind…”
The canoe pivoted left.
“OK, that’s very good. That’s OK.” Keeta was smiling.
“Hey, Keeta!” said Hans. “This isn’t ‘very good.’ This guy’s awesome! We’re going to kick butt on the river today, and you other canoes are going to eat our wake!”
Clearly Hans had been too long among American idioms.
During the testing, our canoe had slipped to third place. I dug in my paddle and we surged forward again, towards our rightful position.
“Hey, slow down!” yelled Patti. “This isn’t a race.”
Good point. After we regained our number one position I relaxed a bit. The problem was that for days I’d been sitting in Land Rovers being ferried across Africa. I had too much pent-up energy.
If I’d known what was coming I’d have saved it more carefully.
Almost immediately we joined the broad Zambezi River. Zimbabwe was on our right. And on our left, across the water, was Zambia—one of the most primitive countries in Africa. Certainly their canoes, if they had them, were inflatable. Certainly their paddles, if they had them, were double ended. It was the kind of condition for which the United Nations Security Council might vote foreign aid to alleviate. But that would not help us now.
Actually right now we didn’t need much help. The broad Zambezi was nearly a mile wide already. One could paddle the canoes, or not paddle them, and it really didn’t make much difference. We were afloat on a broad sea of water, flowing somnolently between two African countries, and towards one of the greatest waterfalls in the world.
“Over there, on that tree on the bank,” called Keeta. “A fish eagle!”
Oh, like, yawn. How many of these fish eagles had I seen yesterday? A dozen? A hundred? Close cousins to the bald eagle, they are as endemic to Africa as panhandlers are to New York.
As we continued downstream, Keeta pointed out other birds along the bank and flying over the river.
Birds? Who cared about birds? Did he really think that I, a veteran of 700 Cape Buffalo, cared about birds on a river bank? What was I supposed to do, like, count their wings and divide by two? I’m sure.
I was more interested in navigating the canoe. Actually, being in first place, I was navigating the entire expedition. 200 yards ahead were some black rocks, poking out almost in the middle of the river . No problem. I dug my paddle in on the right side of the canoe, and we pivoted right. The entire company followed.
Keeta appeared from somewhere.
“Smart move!” he called. “Let’s give them a wide berth!”
“Well, they’re just rocks,” I called out. “But we’ve got the whole river, so why risk running aground?”
“Rocks?” said Keeta. “You think those are rocks?”
“Yeah, they’re rocks. I think we can miss them, like, if we really, really maneuver carefully.”
I was being sarcastic. A blind man could miss them if he simply steered slightly to the right.
“Those aren’t rocks,” said Keeta.
“Well rocks, logs, I don’t care. Whatever it is, we can avoid it.”
“It’s a herd of hippopotamuses,” said Keeta. “And they’ll bite a canoe in half.”
“Oh, give me a break. You mean you think those rocks are…” One of them moved.
“That’s it!” screamed Keeta. “Everyone paddle as fast as you can.”
The rocks were attacking the canoes, and all my experience in the Canadian wilderness, and in the canyons of the Colorado, was revealed as hollow.
The seven canoes surged forward, and in a few minutes we were past the danger.
“Those were hippopotamuses?” I asked Keeta.
“Yes, lots of hippos on this river. Must be very, very careful not to make hippos angry. “
“How do we avoid making them angry?” I asked, fearing no one else would pose this obvious question.
“Hippos very territorial,” he explained. “Canoes come down river, hippos think we invade their territory. They attack.”
“Yeah, so how do we avoid that?”
“Paddle fast,” explained Keeta.
“Are they really dangerous?” asked Patti, from several canoes over.
“Hippopotamus can bite a crocodile in half,” said Keeta. “Hippopotamus can bite a canoe in half. Hippopotamus can bite person in half.”
“Yeah, but like, they’re herbivores, aren’t they? They don’t attack people do they?”
“Hippopotamuses are herbivores. They eat grass. But if they think you, or crocodile, or elephant, interfere with their grass, they bite you in half! Then they finish eating grass.”
It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day on the Zambezi river, or it had been before all this talk of Hippopotamuses biting things in half. For several hours we paddled along gently, the canoes all more or less right together. Occasionally a bow paddler would simply lie back on the bow and rest, while the stern paddler kept the canoe moving forwards. Or vice versa. No one was in a hurry to get to Victoria Falls, which was our destination—or rather, the take-out spot just above the falls. We saw impala occasionally on the river bank, and crocodiles here and there, and of course many birds and hundreds of fish eagles. But for many miles we saw no hippopotamuses, and it seemed we had left all of them, and the things they bit in half, behind.
As the sun was high over head, and we’d been paddling for several hours on this broad mile-wide river, the river began to be broken up by tiny clumps of grass. As we continued, these clumps of grass expanded into islands, and then the islands expanded, and soon we were no longer on a river amidst islands, but in thick grassland, cut here and there with thin channels and waterways.
Keeta took the lead at this point, and navigated us through these thin channels. The towering weeds that to me looked like grasses, weren’t grasses at all. “This is papyrus,” explained Keeta. “We are in papyrus forest.”
The grasses, or papyrus, had now become so thick that it had closed in around our boats completely. We were paddling over a surface of grass and weeds and papyrus, and yet somehow beneath it all must have been water, because the inflatable canoes kept going, even as the papyrus brushed against our faces and the bottoms of our versatile craft scraped over the weeds.
Yet even so we would have been lost without our guide. This was a scene from “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It was the scene where the two of them were trying to navigate an old steam-engine motor boat through miles of weed-infested waterways, on their way to Lake Victoria. That movie had been filmed 500 miles north-northeast of our present position, but the conditions were identical and everyone commented on it.
“This looks like that scene from ‘The African Queen’ said Patti.
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of, “ added Brian. “The African Queen.”
We were in these papyrus weeds less than thirty minutes before emerging once more into clear, open water. And then, over on the Zambian side of the river, we saw the elephant. He was standing in the river—large, fearsome tusks, a gigantic head and trunk—calmly drinking the Zambezi. All seven canoes became hushed as we tried to paddle ever-so-silently closer to the big elephant.
I was tempted to yell: “Hey, guys, you don’t need to be quiet. I just came from Chobe, where they have 80,000 elephants and—trust me—elephants aren’t scared of canoes.”
As if to underscore my point, the elephant waded farther out into the water, and then started swimming—towards the canoes. All seven canoes began ever-so-silently backing up. Perhaps this satisfied the elephant, for he now turned and begin swimming across the little cove we were now in. Reaching the other side he climbed out of the water at a spot where he was met by two other elephants and suddenly it was snack time.
Their massive gray trunks and vicious ivory tusks went into action: ripping apart the trees, pulling out whole bushes by their roots, crashing into the underbrush, stomping the grass into a muddy ooze.
It was more proof that you can be pro-environment, or pro-elephant, but it’s very hard to be both. We observed the carnage long enough for people to begin running out of film, and then turned our canoes away and proceeded down the river.
Attack of the Wild Hippopotamuses
The river was getting faster now, on this stretch. Keeta motioned for all the canoes to come closer together and then called out:
“Big rapids just around next corner. Canoes need to line up single file. Stay in the middle of the rapids. Right at the end you must turn sharply left and then go to the bank. We’ll stop there for lunch.
Brian and I were in the lead and as we came around the bend it was suddenly obvious why these were “inflatable” canoes. We were looking at several hundred yards of class IV rapids. Almost instantly our canoe plunged into them and the roller coaster began. It was not technically difficult in the sense of maneuvering around rocks. But the quantity of water rushing through the narrow gorge was huge, and we now found ourselves smashing into haystacks and rooster tails as high as anything the river-rafters run in Colorado. A normal canoe would have buried its nose into the first haystack and sunk out from under us. As it was we were riding out the waves fairly well, but it was difficult to keep the strange craft pointed straight downstream. And of course that was the key. To turn at all sideways in this maelstrom would be to flip instantly—unlike a normal river raft we were narrow enough that turning sideways and flipping was a real possibility. My hatred of the kayak paddle was growing stronger wave by wave, and near the end an especially large haystack grabbed the front of the canoe and jerked it to the left. I dug the kayak-paddle blade deep into the water on our starboard side and with a massive backstroke brought us again into alignment with the current. I’d averted disaster but now had a strained muscle to contend with. It was good we were breaking for lunch.
Once more I had the pleasure of relaxing while the guides flipped one of the canoes over up on the bank, used it for a big table, and began spreading out a feast of cold meats, pickles, potato salad, bread, lemonade and even brownies for desert. The ministers said grace over the upturned canoe but the instant they were finished we fell on the bounty like a pack of starving wolves. Certainly my canoe would be riding lower in the water after this feast and it occurred to me that perhaps that was why they had to be inflatable—to keep them from sinking after the noon-time gorging.
Hippopotamuses attacked us three times after lunch. A pattern developed. We’d round a corner, or a bend in the river. There would be a herd of hippos on the bank contentedly chewing on grass. They’d look up, see our canoes, and decide we were after their grass. We’d still be up-river of them at this point. We’d head to the opposite bank, and paddle along it, trying to look unobtrusive. The hippos would stare at us hatefully, jealously guarding their grass, and their territory. At the point where we were directly across from them, they’d attack.
A hippo attack is a very strange thing. To begin with, a hippo is so large and ungainly one tends to doubt its ability to move quickly. One is wrong to doubt. The hippos run—literally run, like a Japanese waitress—into the river. A maelstrom of water explodes as they hit the surface. And then the hippo disappears.
In place of the hippo is now a very curious “wall” of water that comes rushing toward the canoes like the bow wave of a partially-submerged submarine. All of this is quite interesting but none of us had a chance to see it.
As soon as the hippo began to move, fourteen canoe paddles would begin furiously thrashing at the river, trying desperately to get beyond the reach of the hippopotamus. With hippopotamus-induced, adrenalized muscles at the paddles, our canoes reached velocities far beyond the designed hull-speeds for this type of craft.
After the second hippopotamus attack of the afternoon Keeta told us something that he probably should have kept to himself.
“You should know,” he explained, “that the top speed of a canoe is about one third the speed of a hippopotamus in the water. You can never out-run a hippo if he wants to catch you. And if he catches you he’ll bite you in half.”
“So what’s the point?” I complained, exhausted, after our last race. “Why don’t we just give up at the beginning and resign ourselves to being bitten in half?”
“Hippos are happy when they see you leave their territory. You paddle fast, pretty soon they quit chasing you. But if you don’t paddle fast, they catch you, and if they catch you…”
“Yeah, we know,” said Patti resignedly, “they bite you in half!”
“Yes, that’s what they do,” said Keeta, surprised that Patti knew so much about hippopotamuses.
But the last hippo attack of the day wasn’t funny. It was dangerous.
We were taking a side channel on the river—a shortcut, as it were—and the banks were very narrow. The river here was less than 50 yards across. We’d paddled maybe a quarter mile down this waterway when Keeta, in the lead canoe, spotted the herd of hippopotamuses.
“Oh no!” he said, instantly realizing the danger of a narrow river. “Everyone go to far bank, stay on far bank!”
All seven canoes were experienced by now, and would have done this even without his advice. But in a narrow river the far bank is not very far away. We would be passing this hippo herd almost within spitting distance.
The drama played itself out like clockwork. The hippos had stopped eating their grass, and were staring at us warily. Their message was unmistakable: If you’re really, really stupid, you humans, you’ll keep paddling downstream and cross our territory, canoe scum!
But we had no choice. We had to continue downstream. And just as we came opposite the hippos, the biggest hippo of all—no doubt the lead hippo from whom the others took their cue—roared. His mouth opened wide, and inside we could see his fleshy pink mouth and throat, with its characteristic blunt-end teeth waiting for something to bite in half. All fourteen paddlers dug in their paddles and the inflatable canoes leaped forward, hoping to survive this gauntlet. The hippopotamuses charged.
Speaking for myself, I’d lost all conscious thought and was in the grip of one overpowering emotion: fear. I’m a good paddler. A very good paddler. I’ve won canoe races in Canada. Yet I’ve never paddled a canoe faster than I paddled now. Vast, turbulent, swirls of water surged from my paddle, and as soon as I’d reached back as far as I could go, I’d bring the paddle forward with blinding speed, desperate to claw away at the river again—claw to safety, and escape these horrible, charging beasts. Hans, in the bow, was doing the same, and if I’d been able to look over at the other canoes, I’m certain I’d have seen similar, terror-stricken faces, and desperate canoe paddling.
There was a sharp curve in the river here, and almost instantly we were beyond it, so fast were the canoes going. Taking a brief moment to glance around, I noticed that the hippos were no longer chasing us. We’d escaped! Keeta, just to our right, was wearing a big smile. The other canoes closed around us, desperately-fatigued bodies collapsing on the gunwales and thwarts, paddles dropping where they fell. But everyone kept their hands on their paddles nonetheless. The paddles had saved our lives.
“OK!” said Keeta, smiling. “I guess we made it!”
Jules, the safari guide, was diligently counting, to make sure all seven canoes were around the bend. Suddenly Keeta was doing the same thing.
They looked at each other in horror. There were only six canoes.
“Peter and Vin!” said Patti. “They were last in line! Where are Peter and Vin?”
Peter, Vin, and their canoe, had vanished.
A horrible realization begin growing within me. Even a slowly-paddled canoe would have caught up with us by now. They weren’t ahead of us. If they were still behind us…
“Peter! Vin!” shouted Jules.
“Peter! Vin!” shouted Keeta. “Hey, where are you?”
We were against the Zambian side of the river and a brooding, terrifying silence now hung over the water. There was no sound of bellowing hippopotamuses. No sound of panicked canoe paddles slashing at the water. No frenzied excitement. There was—nothing.
“Oh my God!” said Patti, almost in a whisper.
A full minute went by, each of us grappling with the implications of the missing canoe. Each of us slowly coming to accept what must have happened, horrible and impossible and inescapable as it seemed. Jules looked like he’d aged ten years. And Keeta wore a blank, terrified expression.
A rattling in the bushes up on the bank, on the Zambia side of the river, forced us out of these dark thoughts, and for a moment a new terror seized us. More hippopotamuses, or maybe…lions. Anything could happen now. Anything already had.
But it was not a new hippopotamus. It was not a lion. It was—and our hearts overflowed with relief—Peter and Vin! They were running through the Zambian forest, way up on the bank, carrying their canoe, barefoot, and rushing through the bush.
“Hey! What happened!” called out Jules.
“The hippos were too close!” said Vin. “There was no way we were going to get past them. We jumped out of the canoe and ran it out of the river into the forest!”
“You guys, you very smart!” said Keeta, grinning ear to ear, his white teeth gleaming.
All of us were smiling now. Our dark thoughts were blown away by the sound of laughter, and good-natured kidding.
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” said Bob, the preacher from Chattanooga. “But I was paddling faster than I’ve ever paddled in my life. I was paddling so fast, I don’t even think the blade was touching the water!”
“Amen to that,” agreed Tom, from Savannah. “It was ‘praise the Lord’ time, fer sure!”
The last two hours on the river were quiet and peaceful, and we were ready for that. The sun was still high—winter didn’t mean short days this close to the equator, and we were largely content to lie back and let the river move us somnolently along. The vast plume of mist from Victoria Falls was very visible now, and if we’d all gone to sleep we no doubt would have been carried over it shortly to our deaths. But no one seemed to mind. Here and there a lone beer arched it’s way gracefully through the sky from one canoe to another, and if it exploded thereafter upon opening, no one minded that either. It was a time for relaxing.
Or it might have been, if the float plane hadn’t been so determined to pester us. No doubt this was one of those “See Victoria Falls from a Float Plane” craft that had been advertised so heavily in town. It would land on the river, pick up and discharge passengers at a little dock on the Zimbabwe side, and then roar to a takeoff directly over our heads, before banking gracefully and disappearing in to the plume of spray from the falls.
“That’s what I’d like!” exclaimed Hans. “I’d like to learn to fly a plane!”
“Yeah,” I agreed., leaning back, working on my own beer. “That’s what I used to do—fly planes.”
“You! You’re a pilot?”
“I used to be. I used to fly planes. Little planes, just like that one.”
“Did you ever fly float planes?” asked Brian, from the next canoe over.
“Float planes are my favorite,” I answered. “That’s my main goal in life, to own my own float plane.” I didn’t mention my other main goal, which was to own my own 47’ sailboat, and my other main goal, which was to own my own island off the coast of British Columbia, and have my float plane and my sailboat tied up to the dock outside my cabin.
“So, what kind of plane is that?” asked Patti, sipping a beer, leaning back looking up at the sky.
I squinted my eyes.
“Cessna 182. Variable pitch propeller. Seats 4. 180 horsepower Lycoming engine. Top cruise speed is 125 knots, without floats.. With floats—who knows?”
“Yeah, but with floats, who cares?” added Hans.
“Damn right!” I agreed, and immediately regretted the words in the presence of the ministers.
I was a little depressed now, remembering my main goals in life, and realizing how far I was from achieving them. Canoeing the Zambezi had been fun, but—here at the end—a beautiful little float plane was buzzing back and forth above us, tormenting me on some deep, personal level.
On the other hand, none of us had been bitten in half by hippopotamuses. That had to count for something.
By four p.m. we’d reached the end of our journey. Keeta led us over to the Zimbabwe side where we took out the canoes and carried them up a steep dirt bank. It was only a short wait before the Land Rover arrived and took us back into town, dropping us at our respective hotels. We exchanged addresses, and promised to send each other copies of our pictures. It had been less than twenty four hours ago that I’d first met them, yet they seemed like close friends already. Being chased by hippopotamuses together builds a powerful bond that is difficult to achieve in any other way.
Last Gasp of the British Empire
I enjoyed having a quiet dinner alone that evening. I’d reclaimed my full backpack suitcase from the valet, checked into my room, and enjoyed a long hot shower under which I managed to wash off all traces of poisonous snake, baboon, fish eagle, elephant and the various other animals that might have contaminated me.
Dinner, at the Victoria Falls hotel, requires evening dress. I’d been warned of that in my guidebook and now proudly extracted a white shirt, tie, sport coat, and other accouterments from my pack. In truth, walking through the elegant hallways of this monument to 19th-century British empire-building, I’d have felt under-dressed in anything less. Wood-framed prints from an earlier day hung along the walls. Animal heads—all species of animals heads—were mounted throughout: on the stairways, in the lobby, around the verandah, and most certainly in the dining rooms. White-coated servants walked solemnly about the grounds, anxious to attend to the needs of gentlemen. On the way to the dining room itself, I chanced upon a cloistered den. A crystal decanter of brandy was there for the enjoyment of the guests—no charge, of course. Copies of the day’s business newspapers were available in a rack along one wall. A selection of cigars had been set nearby. A small fire burned with quiet dignity in the corner. Ancient, framed maps of central Africa—looking as though they’d been sketched by Livingstone himself—were arrayed against a far wall. A sword collection vied for attention near the doorway, competing effectively with an artistic array of impala horns.
Sedately, I walked over and pulled the London Times from its rack, thumbed through the pages and checked on the status of my vast financial holdings. I glanced disdainfully at the cigars, finding none equal to my taste. The port was adequate, at least in the absence of anything better, and I stood for a while nodding sagaciously at the sword collection. Ah, yes, memories of the Crimean campaign. Such a valiant effort, that.
Thus prepared and in the proper frame of mind, I condescended to appear at the dining room and was seated with appropriate solemnity. Course followed course, and the string quartet playing chamber music in the corner distracted only slightly from the skill of the chef. The wine was properly chilled, and while it could claim no great lineage, it was bearable as such things go.
It was a very pleasant dinner, and I tried to enjoy it, yet in truth I found it could not compare with the taste of cold cuts served off the keel of an upturned canoe, at the bottom of a class IV rapids on the Zambezi river. Furthermore it was the Fourth of July back in the states, and on some patriotic level I knew I should be sitting on a grassy bank somewhere, eating fried chicken out of a basket, and watching fireworks exploding in the sky. But here in the heart of British Africa it seemed unlikely I would find any celebration of America’s independence. Meanwhile the sea of mounted heads surrounding my table gazed vacantly down at me, their unseeing eyes determined to evoke guilt even in one not responsible for their situation.
I might have had horrible dreams that night if I had not slept so soundly.
Alone Into Zambia
To a true “adventure traveler” (which I fancied myself to be), too much pre-planned, escorted, organized touring is stifling. For days now I had been carefully Land Rovered, motor-boated, canoed, and micro-bussed across Africa. My inner travel-soul screamed for some solo adventure that I could organize myself, partake of myself, and bask in the thrill of completion myself.
And I knew what that adventure would be. I would rent a mountain bike in Victoria Falls, pass through customs, cross the Zambezi river, and bicycle deep into the heart of Zambia—arguably the wildest and most primitive country in Africa. I would take with me no map, no knowledge of local customs, and no ability to speak the language. To really test my survival skill I resolved to even leave behind my laptop Pentium 120 MHz computer. Where I was going, no one needed to know about the Internet. And if I encountered any elephants or Cape Buffalo, I’d count their legs and divide by four even without an Excel spreadsheet to guide me.
Bicycles are available for rent in Victoria Falls, but most look like they’ve gone over the falls at least once. Others appear to have gone over several times. I had to visit three rental shops before I found a bike that appeared likely to survive an expedition into Zambia.
Next I had to secure wilderness provisions. I’ve learned there are really only two wilderness provisions that are essential in tropical countries: water, and a hat. I’d already purchased a safari hat at the Chobe Game Lodge, and it had served me well yesterday on the river. Now I found a small grocery store and purchased two large bottles of water, which I could just fit into my daypack. The pack itself I bungee-corded to the luggage carrier on the bike.
Coasting down the highway from Victoria Falls I soon came to Zimbabwe customs at the edge of the river. There were many other people here waiting to cross into Zambia. All of them were black women, in colorful cottony dresses, and most of them were carrying things on their heads. Many were also carrying babies on their backs.
When it was my turn my passport was stamped with a Zimbabwe exit visa, and I was shuffled over to customs.
I read the customs declaration and was surprised to notice that I was not allowed to take more than 25 Zimbabwe dollars with me into Zambia. I had over 400 in my billfold.
“Anything to declare? Any currency? Zimbabwe dollars more than 25?” asked the black customs agent.
“Uh, actually, yes. I have more than 25 Zimbabwe dollars.”
“Can’t take more than 25 Zimbabwe dollars into Zambia.”
“Yes, well, I understand that now. What can I do?”
“Leave Zimbabwe dollars here. I give you receipt.”
I handed over my 375 extra Zimbabwe dollars to this third-world customs agent in return for a promise of a receipt, and resigned myself to never seeing them again. This was, after all, part of the adventure of going to Zambia. Before even crossing the river I’d been robbed of 375 Zimbabwean dollars! This was exciting! My solo adventure was in full swing.
I pedaled my bike across the Zambezi river bridge but at the half way point a crowd had gathered and I was forced to stop and see what they were looking at.
The Zambezi river bridge must be one of the highest suspension bridges in the world, for it spans the terrible chasm of the Zambezi gorge, just below the falls. Sheer rock walls drop precipitously into nothingness on either side of the bridge, and at the bottom—far, far below—surges the mighty Zambezi itself, at the height of its rampage, furious at having been tossed over a cliff, and forced to contract from a mile-wide to fifty feet wide, and still looking for the party responsible…
In short it was a treacherously high bridge, spanning a horribly deep canyon.
And so, not surprisingly, someone had established a bungee-jumping operation right in the middle of the bridge.
My third-world solo adventure had come to this? Colorful natives gathered to look at…bungee jumping? I pedaled on, disgusted.
Once across the bridge the road passed under a chain link fence, and the only way through it was to enter another run-down, dirt-stained, customs building off to the side: Zambian Immigration.
That phrase sounded like the mother of all oxymorons: Zambian Immigration. Who immigrates to Zambia? And how low would a person have to be to be turned away while trying to immigrate to Zambia?
“Yes, sir, let’s take a look at this application now, shall we? It says here you wish to immigrate to Zambia. Perfectly understandable. Now, let’s discuss qualifications. Please list your graduate degrees on this form here, yes, thank you. Now, from which banks will you be transferring funds, and in what amounts? This form here, please. Ah. I see. Yes. Quite impressive. And, if I could just ask you, sir, to—on this other form—please describe the types of businesses you will be creating, the number of employees you will be hiring, and your anticipated charitable contributions for the next calendar year. Very good of you, sir.
“Now, on this final form, if you could please just describe which members of the Zambian royal family you are related to, and if you could attach letters of introduction from as many of them as possible…
“What’s that? You hold invitations to immigrate from no Zambian royal family member relations? Why, sir, how dare you waste valuable Zambian immigration office time with such a spurious application! Guards! Yes, guards! Over here at once! Please escort this—gentleman—back to the bridge. You know the drill. Over he goes. And don’t spend too much time checking his bungee cord. If it’s too long—well—these things happen…”
Actually it wasn’t quite that difficult to enter Zambia, but it wasn’t all that easy, either. Apparently I needed something called an “Immigration Visa.” Immigration visas—good for up to thirty days—are sold for $15 U.S. dollars. Not the equivalent of $15 U.S. dollars. Fifteen actual U.S. dollars.
“I don’t have any U.S. dollars,” I explained, sheepishly, to the immigration official. “I’m coming from Zimbabwe.”
Talk about stating the obvious. How else would one arrive at Zambian customs on the north side of the Zambezi river bridge if they weren’t coming from Zimbabwe? It was like someone crossing the Rio Grande at El Paso saying they were coming from Mexico.
“…I only have Zimbabwe currency,” I continued.
“It’s OK,” said the 500 pound black customs official with the shiny white teeth and the tattered Zambian army uniform. “You don’t need to pay in U.S. dollars.”
“You pay in British pounds, Swiss francs, German deutschmarks…”
“But I don’t have any of those things! I’m coming from Zimbabwe, not Switzerland!”
“No Swiss francs? No British pounds?”
“No, of course not!”
“Ah, sorry. Then you pay in U.S. Dollars…”
“But I don’t have any U.S. dollars! I’m coming from Zimbabwe. I only have Zimbabwe currency. Wait, that’s not completely true. I also have Botswana currency. See? Here is some money from Botswana? Can I pay in Botswana money?”
“No, no! Zimbabwe money better than Botswana money! But you from America. You must pay in American dollars.”
“I don’t have any.”
“I’m very sorry. You must go back across bridge. You can’t enter this country.”
My solo bicycle adventure into the heart of Zambia looked like it was going to come to a screeching halt less than twenty feet from the border. But I was not willing to back down. Taking the equivalent of twenty U.S. dollars—in Zimbabwe money—from my billfold I set it on the counter off to the side. I just set it there, and didn’t move. There were customers behind me now. Black women with babies who merely flashed their local passports before being waved on through. Five or ten of these went past. I just stood there, staring at the official, and with the Zimbabwe bills lying on the counter. Finally he shrugged his shoulders, slipped the money into a side drawer, stamped my passport with a Zambian immigration visa, and waved me on.
I had entered Zambia at last.
Of course I’d also entered Zambia yesterday: when we’d stopped for lunch we’d been on the Zambian side. But this time I’d entered officially and—I fancied—somewhat illegally, having more or less bribed the guard with an extra five dollars. It felt delicious being so clandestine.
Although I had no map, I knew where I wished to go. About twenty-five miles from the border is the town of Livingstone—Zambia’s second largest city. The road I was now on would take me there. All I had to do was follow it.
I had no particular reason for going to Livingstone. It was simply a place that I knew I could get to if I followed this road. I would bicycle to Livingstone. Have lunch. Walk around. And bicycle back to Zimbabwe and civilization.
Americans who grow up and live in America develop certain innate reactions to things—certain defense mechanisms. For example white Americans are often nervous about being in situations in which they are completely surrounded by blacks. White Americans are culturally trained to believe that blacks are more likely to be violent criminals. That’s why white Americans are nervous in places like Manhattan’s Harlem, or the South Side of Chicago.
In South Africa, in Botswana, and in Zimbabwe I’d been surrounded by both whites and blacks. White Americans are comfortable being surrounded by both whites and blacks. It’s when there are only blacks that white Americans get nervous.
In Zambia—already far removed from the tourist track—there were only blacks. The deeper into the country I traveled, the more likely it seemed that I was the only white person in all of Zambia. And I was alone, on a bicycle, on a deserted stretch of road, in the wilderness.
I came across many blacks walking alongside this road. The women with the babies had all disappeared and in their place were angry young black men. They scowled at me as I pedaled along the two-lane asphalt highway.
I had twenty five miles to go to get to Livingstone and I wasn’t going to survive it if I had to run a gauntlet of young, angry, scowling, black men every couple hundred yards. Where was my machine-gun equipped, Zambian-fighting, Cessna 172 when I needed it?
Choosing an alternate strategy, I decided to make friends.
As I approached the next angry scowling black, I waved gaily to him, gave a big smile, and said “Good morning!”
The transformation was instant. His face went from angry and scowling to friendly and animated. He smiled a big toothy smile, waved back, and said “Hallooo! How are you!”
One got the impression that those were the only English words he knew, but since I was on a bike etiquette did not require that I stop and continue the conversation. At least here was one less person likely to stab me in the back with an assegai spear.
I did the same thing with the next angry black I encountered, and got the same result.
The conclusion was unmistakable: these were not angry, scowling people at all. These were friendly people. Perhaps they’d been worried that I was angry and scowling, myself, and they were just maintaining an outer shell.
I began to wonder what would happen if I were to try this same technique while riding a bicycle through the drug-infested, bullet-torn, gang-ridden streets of South Chicago. I could see myself coming across a group of sullen, angry, young blacks…
“Good morning!” I’d call to them, showing a friendly smile, and waving gaily.
“Hey, f— you, mother f—er!” …they’d call back
“Yeah, whitey, we cut you ass up good, you don’t go home to mama…”
No, I was quite sure this technique would not work in America. But it was working in Africa. Every man I passed on the road would start out sullen, and be instantly converted to friendly and eager.
After I’d gone a few miles I came across a group of six young boys, perhaps eight or nine years old. Each of them was carrying a fantastic quantity of long wooden sticks over his shoulder. These sticks were easily twenty feet long, and each boy had perhaps thirty of them. The boys were walking down the road, carrying them to a village somewhere, perhaps. I smiled at them and they smiled back, changing from sullen to happy in the blink of an eye.
I felt very powerful, bicycling through the countryside of Zambia, armed with this technique for turning every scary person into a friendly and smiling passerby.
I was more concerned about the lions. If there was one thing I’d learned from my last several days in Africa, it was that wild animals are everywhere: not just behind fences in restricted game parks. There might be more wild animals in Chobe Park than outside, but the animals have no way of knowing whether they’re in the park or not. It’s not like there’s a fence.
Two days ago on a road not nearly this deserted we’d come across a rogue elephant, looking to kill. Later that same day we’d passed a pith adder—the most dangerous snake in Africa—slowly crossing the highway. Crocodiles were ubiquitous, and the lions—obviously—went wherever they pleased.
In fact if I were a lion I’d just hang out along this highway, wait for a sullen, angry young man to walk past, smile at him, and then gobble him up. Why chase gazelles and impala, when humans were everywhere and presumably so easy to catch? And how would a white morsel like me, riding a bicycle, look to a lion?
Probably like desert trying to get away.
But despite these fears I didn’t see any wild animals. The countryside was fairly flat and featureless. Dried grasslands extended in all directions, with here and there a tree, to break up the monotony. It was a clear day, and the sun was getting hot—at least to someone riding a bicycle. My safari hat was proving useful, as were the bottles of water. Very occasionally a car would pass me but I came across no houses or farms or small villages. This was a very deserted part of Africa.
It required about two hours of bicycling to reach Livingstone, and as I approached the outskirts, I was looking forward to my first taste of a real, untainted, African city.
South Africa is a modern country—not third world at all—with highways, for example, that put even the U.S. to shame. Victoria Falls is a tourist center. In Botswana—judging by what I’d seen—there simply are no towns.
Livingstone, on the other hand, is both large enough to show up on world maps, and is sufficiently off-the-beaten path—I hoped—to have preserved its identity.
With these expectations I pedaled cautiously and curiously into Livingstone.
There were some low brick buildings, mostly painted white or pastel blue. At street level these seemed to contain stores: small groceries, hardware stores, that kind of thing. I kept pedaling. The buildings thinned. Suddenly I was back in open grassland. I’d come out the other side of Livingstone!
OK, so the first thing I’d learned was that Livingstone does not deserve to appear on world maps. I’d spent two hours bicycling through Zambian grasslands to get to—this? Livingstone, I judged, was about 1/20th the size of Cedar Falls, Iowa.
I also recalled, however, that Livingstone is the second largest city in Zambia. Looked at in that way, I suppose every country has the right to have its second largest city appear on world maps.
Having come out the far end of town I turned around and pedaled back. This time I tried exploring the side streets but there weren’t many of them and they didn’t go very far.
I turned a corner, expecting to work back to the main highway, but came at last upon something worth seeing: an open-air market. Vendors of vegetables, beans, nuts and various other food-like things had set out their wares directly on the street, with colorful blankets serving as display counters. Other vendors were selling clothes: a street-side K-Mart of discount fashion. These clothes were hung from makeshift clothing rods made of wooden sticks—the same kind of sticks those boys had been carrying—and they were very cottony and colorful and there were many sizes and patterns and styles to choose from. Many women were walking around, most of them carrying things on their heads or babies on their back, or both.
I locked my bike to a lamp-post and wandered around this market myself. In most countries—in fact in all countries I’d been to—when you try to take pictures of local people it’s very difficult because they don’t want to be photographed. Zambians are different. Noticing me walking around with my camera, people would come up and want to pose for a picture. I obliged them all, being specially partial to the women selling vegetables with their colorful dresses and broad, white-toothed smiles.
Here, it seemed, I’d at last found the real Africa. There were no tourists in Livingstone. No brochures advertised helicopter rides or rafting expeditions. There were no Wimpy’s hamburger restaurants and no hotels of any kind. No one spoke English. I was a single white face alone in a sea of black culture. But this was not like walking through Harlem. The people living here had always lived here. They had no history of slavery, or at least not the kind of slavery where you’re taken ten thousand miles away from your home. I sensed here no latent animosity towards someone of my skin color.
It’s very difficult for racial hatreds to exist where there simply aren’t different races: where there aren’t any minorities. In Zambia I wasn’t a minority, I was more a freak. And no one minded a freak walking around. And if the freak wanted to take pictures, why not smile for him!
A street vendor was selling meat pies of uncertain origin. Trying not to wonder what Zambian animal had gone into them I purchased two for lunch, and they were quite good, actually. Soon I was ready for the long trip back to the border, and the relative civilization of Zimbabwe.
Being now somewhat anxious to return to my own world I walked back to the bike and reached into my pocket for the padlock key. I was quite proud of the shorts I was wearing, because they looked like real safari adventure shorts. You know, the kind with several hundred pockets, and zippers, and hooks for hanging compasses on and such. I needed only to unlock my bike and I’d be on my way home.
At that moment my exciting adventure came to a screeching halt. I’d lost my padlock key! Meticulously I checked every pocket in the shorts, on my shirt, everywhere. No key.
I sensed immediately the horror of my predicament . Here I was stranded in a third-world country (more like a fourth or fifth-world country, actually). No one spoke English. There was no helpful tourist bureau nearby. I had no way to get home except by bicycle. My bicycle was padlocked to a lamp-post. And I had no way to unlock the bike!
I had no way of getting home! I was going to be stranded in Livingstone and forced to eat meat pies from street vendors for who knew how long? Certainly there was no public transportation that I’d seen, and no way to ask about it in any case. It was too far to walk. I’d seen a few private cars, but not many. This was terrible!
I was quite sure this was much worse than anything faced by Phinneas Fogg on his 80-day trip around the world. He’d never had his only means of transportation irrevocably chained to a lamp-post!
Finding myself being sucked down into a whirlpool of despair, my hand brushed something strange near my left hip. It was a pocket! Another pocket! And—yes!—the key was inside!
Damn shorts. They’d humiliated me, and almost ruined my trip.
Unlocking the bike, I pulled it away from the lamp-post. As I did so, a large section of Zambian street-corner came with it. The asphalt was of such poor quality that the warm sun had melted it—all over my bicycle tires. Carrying the bike to a shady area under a tree, I sat down on the side of the road and spent almost an hour trying to clean the horrible, gooey, third-world asphalt out of the wheels. I was quite certain Phinneas Fogg hadn’t faced this problem either.
Eventually I was back on the highway, quite desperate now to return to the tourist haven of Victoria Falls. With left-over pieces of now-cold asphalt stuck in the treads, I thump-thump-thumpped my way slowly to the border, finding myself not quite so eager to smile generously at the young men I passed along the road. I was now the one who wore the sullen, angry expression, but this time—as if by conspiracy—everyone I met on the highway tried to cheer me up with a big smile and a friendly wave.
So ended my solo adventure into Zambia: a country of very friendly people, and very poor-quality asphalt.
That evening I treated myself to some hard-earned tourist luxury by taking a “sundowner cruise” on the Zambezi river. A dozen or so little pontoon boats ply the waters above Victoria Falls, in the general vicinity of our canoe take-out spot from the day before. There were about fifteen guests on board ours, and we enjoyed light hors d’oeuvres and chilled wine as we watched the sun go down over the Zimbabwe wilderness. Off in the distance, plumes of spray from the falls floated upwards and caught the last rays of the African sunset.
The high point of the cruise, at least for the other guests, came when someone spotted a hippopotamus 200 yards upstream. To my horror, our driver headed towards the hippopotamus. Everyone rushed to that side of the boat and it tipped precipitously from the uneven weight. No one noticed that I, meanwhile, had edged nervously to the opposite side—happy to put as many of these tourists as possible between me and the hippopotamus. If he started biting things in half, I wanted his mouth full by the time he got to me. But before we got closer the blubbery black shape left the river and disappeared into the high grass along the bank, greatly disappointing all but one person on the boat.
By Sunday morning, the day I was to leave Africa, I’d been in the Victoria Falls area for five days—without having ever seen the falls themselves.
“The best time to see them is at sunrise,” a gentlemen advised me on the sunset cruise. “The early morning light plays beautifully against the spray, and you’ll have the falls all to yourself.”
And I did. At 6:00 a.m. Victoria Falls is deserted. A lovely forested park sits atop the high ridge opposite the falls itself—which it directly faces. In other words, standing on this grassy rock outcropping, the river is coming towards you. A hundred yards before reaching you, it drops off the cliff and down into the chasm where the water turns a right angle and becomes an angry, raging torrent, rushing between high rock walls. Thanks to this ridge, the tourist has an ideal, close-proximity, grandstand location from which to see the falls in all its glory. In fact, you are so close that raincoats and umbrellas are essential, and available for rent during normal hours. My Gore-Tex rain jacket was in for the test of its life.
The spray was so thick I was covered in water almost immediately. Walking along the ridge path, the air was saturated with mist and fog. Tinged with orange by the rising sun, huge plumes of spray leapt skyward like solar flares from an angry star. Creeping to the edge of the ridge, I leaned over cautiously and for the first time saw the majesty of the world’s most spectacular waterfall.
Billions of gallons of water were plummeting downwards, crashing into the opposite wall of the canyon, exploding into a trillion tiny prisms of water vapor, erupting out of the canyon in uncontrolled fury and chaos, scintillating as the rays of the rising sun played across them, and finally disappearing into the rising columns of spray which hung as cold, wet blankets over the African wilderness. Like frozen lightning, dozens of rainbows arced gracefully out of the canyon, adding elegant fingers of color to the orange glow of the early-morning mist. The moisture-laden air was redolent with the smell of spring-time moss after a rainstorm, for here the rain never ends and the trees, bushes and lush grasses are perpetually watered.
But the visual beauty, the lush aroma, the exquisite play of light, are as nothing compared to the one over-riding, dominant sensory element of Victoria Falls: the noise. A thousand boxcars dragged sideways over gravel might produce a noise like this, but only if accompanied by the never-ending thunder of a million buffalo racing across the prairie, and all the avalanches that have ever been crashing down at the same time on the same mountain.
I spent over an hour walking along this ridge, taking pictures, and trying to keep the camera dry when changing rolls of film. I didn’t want to leave, for it seemed nature was putting on this most amazing show just for me, and if I left there would be no one here to enjoy it. But at last others arrived, some with umbrellas, and I felt that Victoria Falls was ready for another full day of entertaining tourists. My magical time with her alone had come to an end.
Determined to squeeze in one more activity before boarding the flight to Johannesburg, I rented a motorbike and explored the roads and dirt paths in the wilderness along the banks of the Zambezi river, upstream of the falls. In the midst of the forest I came across a herd of impala who were not as frightened of me as they should have been. I chased them merrily through the woods, my motorbike doing a surprisingly good job of jumping over fallen branches, skidding around trees, and crashing through the weeds. But the impalas did an even better job, and to my disappointment I never was able to catch one. Perhaps that was for the best since in my experience it’s awkward carrying an impala on a motorbike, and even more so trying to check one as luggage on an airplane.
Across the Indian Ocean
Deonne was there to meet me at the Johannesburg airport. We’d never yet signed a contract between Polygon/U.S. and Polygon/South Africa, so we spent an hour in the South African Airways 1st Class lounge working on the document, which we finally signed on the spot. There was another gentleman who Deonne said wanted to speak to me before I left the country: Chris Blieter, a diamond cutter who had drifted in during my speech at the Diamond Dealers Club in Johannesburg. He was coming to the airport and would arrive in a few minutes.
There was a problem actually meeting up with him. The timing of my flight meant that I’d had to go through customs and passport control earlier. I couldn’t go back out to the regular airport once I’d cleared customs. And while Deonne had talked his way past the customs officials so as to accompany me to the airline lounge, there was no way they’d let Chris through.
It seemed it was going to be impossible for us to get together. But Deonne is a man of initiative. Using their respective cell phones, Deonne and Chris managed to rendezvous—but on opposite sides of the customs gate. Deonne now went into action, putting his arm over the shoulder of one of the customs agents, and lapsing gracefully into Afrikaans. I knew what was going on here. Deonne was speaking as one Afrikaner to another: the two of them members of a besieged species, needing to stick together and in this case the one doing the other a big favor.
It worked. The customs agent escorted the three of us into his own private office, to the side of the concourse. Other customs agents were already here, carrying on a conversation in Afrikaans. It was a small room, and now it was very crowded. We squished into a corner, sitting on our briefcases, and the side of a coffee table, respectively. It was quite awkward, and was certainly not an environment conducive to a serious business meeting, but it was all we had.
Chris laid out a very complicated proposal for how he could help Polygon expand into the People’s Republic of China, working through an affiliate of his company based in Shanghai. This was not an easy thing for me to focus on, being squished into this tiny airport customs office, sitting on the edge of a coffee table, surrounded by Afrikaner-speaking customs agents, at the end of a day that had largely been spent chasing impalas around the jungle on a motorbike.
But I tried to take good notes, and we ended the meeting on my promise that I would get back to him with my thoughts on the matter after I arrived home.
Finally we all said good-bye, I thanked Deonne for his help, and we made tentative plans for getting together again as soon as possible. It was ten-thirty at night when I finally boarded the South African Airways 747 flight to Perth, Australia, and this time I did what I should have done on the previous flights. Utterly ignoring the dinner service, I took two sleeping pills and lapsed into unconsciousness almost immediately.
I’d been slightly nervous about this flight, ever since I began planning my trip. It was almost entirely over water, but not just any water. The southern Indian Ocean, between the coasts of South Africa and Australia, is one of the most deserted and empty spots on the planet. There was no logical reason for that to bother me, of course, but flying over this stretch of ocean—at night—seemed like the kind of thing a person should worry about if they were going to worry about such things at all.
But the two sleeping pills took charge of the situation with quiet authority, and the next thing I remember was the captain’s voice announcing our approach into Perth. And the sun—the Australian sun—was shining brightly through the window.
I had enough time at the Perth airport to take a shower and feel almost human again. Flying east, the hours were disappearing fast, and when the plane landed in Sydney it was already 7pm at night. Between the flights and the time zones, I’d erased an entire 24 hour period. Racing through the Sydney airport, I was able to catch an Ansett flight to Melbourne just minutes before it’s departure, and in less than an hour I was being met by my sister Beth, and driven to her new home on the beach at Port Carllip Bay.
I had traveled more than two thirds of the way around the world.
Business Down Under
Trying to launch Polygon in Australia was surprisingly similar to launching it in South Africa. There are similar trade associations, similar numbers of jewelers, similar culture and language (at least if you don’t count Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and the ten other official tribal languages in South Africa, few of which are spoken widely in Melbourne.)
Beth had done a meticulous job of lining up the necessary meetings, and I now scurried between these, doing my “wind-up” act with my laptop computer, and explaining Virtual Boutiques, TradeLock, and other Polygon technologies to the various association heads and trade publishers around the city.
The next morning I left for Canberra, and a meeting at the airport with Chris Reeves, Executive Director of the Jewelers Association of Australia. Echoing my airport negotiation with Deonne, Chris and I signed a Polygon/JAA contract on the spot—and Polygon/Australia was now a reality.
Canberra is set among beautiful forested hills, and the city’s skyscrapers glimmer in the distance from the airport. It was my first visit to Canberra, and I would have liked to have seen more, but two hours after arriving, another plane whisked me on to Sydney. Three more meetings were able to be squeezed in that day, and one more—over breakfast—the following morning before I had to rush to the airport for my flight home. If I’d played hard for a week in Africa, I was now making up for it by working hard in Australia—if you could really call it work. Demonstrating Virtual Boutiques on my little IBM laptop, and seeing eyes light up with excitement over the technology, was becoming almost like a game. On some level I felt I could continue forever: endlessly circling the earth, meeting jewelry industry executives, demonstrating virtual boutiques, and then flying on to the next continent. No doubt it would become tiring eventually, but for the moment I was willing to take one more spin around the planet if there was anyone left to meet with. I still hadn’t been to Cape Alguhas, after all.
Completing the Circle
Leaving Sydney I was once more back in the world of United Airlines. My meetings were over at last, and I had no care at all for whether I would arrive home with enough sleep. So every meal United was willing to feed me, I was willing to eat—no matter how long and drawn out the service.
Night once more came quickly as we flew eastwards, and my body minded not at all going to sleep only a few hours after waking up. They say that jet lag catches up to you about three days after you land at your destination. I had a theory that with this constant eastwards travel, my jet lag was still trying to catch up with me, and right now it was way back over the Indian Ocean. In truth my body had become so confused by the time zones that I think it wasn’t really paying any attention to them any more. It could be light out, dark, whatever, and my body was indifferent. My circadian rhythms had been erased.
But my need for a shower hadn’t. Changing planes in Los Angeles, no showers were available and I had to endure a sponge bath in the restroom using paper towels. I would not be a pretty sight when I arrived in Denver.
At the beginning of the trip, leaving Denver, our plane had taken off to the east, and I knew there must come a time when I would be in another plane approaching Denver from the west. And when that happened, and I saw Denver again from that plane, I would have proved—on a very personal level—that the earth really was round.
I was on that plane now, approaching out of the west, and Denver was right where it should have been. The earth really was a ball. Christopher Columbus was correct. You can head off in one direction, keep going, and eventually you’ll end up right back where you started.
At least that’s the way it works if you fly clockwise. It wouldn’t hurt, I decided as the plane touched down on the runway, to be absolutely certain about the issue. As soon as possible I needed to do it again.
But this time I’d go the other way…