Friday, October 25, 2013

Not Your Average Girl's Weekend

While describing the weekend I spent in the bush with four incredible women is fairly straightforward, processing everything that happened and articulating everything I felt during that weekend is not.
The ladies and Xena on the floodplain
The courageous ladies and I rented an automatic Hilux and ventured into Savuti and Khwai, in Chobe and Moremi Game Reserves, respectively on a self drive safari.This time of year, Savuti is one of the most incredible places I have ever been (I was also there last year with my mom; the experience inspired last weekend). As I mentioned in my previous post, Botswana is an inferno right now. Everything is dry so animals flock to water, such as the Savuti Marsh. We saw incredible wildlife, and the weekend out in the bush challenged my companions and me in ways we thought it might as well as in ways we had no idea to expect. Aimee and I had done extensive research on how to this trip; we had no desire to become a sensationalized news story on five young women who disappeared, presumed to have been eaten by lions. We were warned of deep sand roads, where to watch for water crossings, to carry plenty of fuel and then some, to haul in our own drinking water, to make sure to have the tents completely zipped up (because curious animals may want a look), that if you do get stuck, to not under any circumstances to wander from the vehicle, and to bring shovel, because digging your truck out of the sand with a cooler box is no fun. I may or may not have compiled a very nerdy document full of safety information and tips. 

So, with plenty of fuel, water, and a last minute tossing out of an orange (elephants really like oranges, to the point of trying to get into your car to get them), we set off. We found the roads to be far kinder than expected, though full of bumps and I'm still glad I did so much research on driving in sand! The incredible sightings began early- within 15 minutes of entering the reserve, we see a pride of lions hanging out near the road! The rest of the drive did not disappoint, with plenty of elephants, giraffe, and other game. From there we set up and went back out on a game drive to the marsh, with stunning results.

After the first water crossing!
The first day was full of magic. Everything went as well as it could have; we spent time sitting on the marsh just overwhelming happy, handled the sandy roads with ease. A friendly guide in another vehicle even convinced me to drive through a fairly shallow water crossing to see a leopard on the other side (before leaving, I had decided we were just not going to mess with water. Throw a leopard in and guide who tells you 'Ah, that crossing is dry!' to encourage you and you feel like you could make it through a river). When we got back to camp, we were making dinner when we saw wild dogs (highly endangered!) across the stream. We watched them play for about 15 minutes; it was incredible to see them romp around like your own dog would. 

After such an enchanting first day, we were feeling pretty confident. We hadn't even come close to getting stuck; in fact, we hardly even needed four wheel drive. We had seen really incredible things in an 8 hour period. We had crossed water and bumpy, sandy roads with no problem in our tough Hilux, which we had dubbed Xena, Warrior Princess. We needed the reality check Day Two was to provide. 

The leopard print is circled...
and inches from the tent.
We awoke to sniffing noises in the early morning and then leopard prints, inches from the tents (actually pretty neat as opposed to frightening, as long as the tent is fully closed, creatures will not bother you). We continued on to yet another lion sighting, this time a pride munching on a fresh breakfast along the river. From there, we moved on towards the marsh. We came across another water crossing, and full of confidence, spent a short time discussing whether or not we should cross and see what all the cars on that side were watching. We eyed the depth, decided it was probably okay, and all leaned towards just going for it. Luckily, another safari vehicle (coincidentally driven by the guide who had taken out my mom and I) was coming our way, so we decided to sit back and see how it did. Well, as my foreshadowing suggests, there was no way we could have made that water crossing without a snorkel. There was a hole in the middle, which we would have hit and probably flooded the engine. There were several things that went wrong on this trip, but that was the easily the most stupid thing we did. So with our egos in check and a very important lesson learned, we continued on, in the opposite direction, to view more incredible game that morning. 

During our afternoon drive, things got a little more interesting again. About 15 minutes in, we came up on some elephants close to the road. Certainly, we are not elephant experts, but I have been around many of the giants, sometimes very close, without them minding. As long as you’re respectful and go by at a moderate speed, they're usually okay with you, especially in the parks. These elephants did mind how close we were though, as we had unknowingly split them on either side of the road. So, in what felt like five minutes but was likely only a few seconds, we saw the matriarch (that's a guess) get all sorts of irritated and we hurried on our way past them, looking back to see her charging after us! In the charge itself, everything happened so quickly we didn't have much time to react, but it was when we came up against another herd of elephants crossing the road that our anxiety surged, building off each other. We crossed two more groups slowly, awkwardly, and full of anxiety before making it down to the marsh, where we promptly sat and discussed our feelings about the event (some parts remained of a stereotypical 'girl's weekend'). Discussion made it better; we were able to see elephants without cringing... well, for the most part. 

On the Marsh, with several herds of elephants around us (black specks)... when they no longer incited anxiety.
Savuti was kind to us the rest of the weekend, giving us another leopard sighting, a beautiful, juvenile male lion at sunset, BABY LION CUBS, four adult full mane lions (thanks to a friend we saw out there, he led us through three water crossings to get there!), and another leopard, which we spotted walking from across a water crossing that we weren't entirely sure where we had gone through, and again, all it took was a leopard to make me courageous.

Viewpoint for the Hippo Pool
From Savuti, we made our way to Khwai, an area in Moremi National Park. Again, we had been told to expect deep sand; not so much, though just a few confusing points in navigation, which with the help of several maps, a GPS, and finally, confirming by asking directions (to play into stereotypes- another benefit of an all women trip, no issues with asking for directions), we made it to Khwai after a sketchy bridge crossing and a few more animal sightings. Our time in Khwai had some surprises in store for us, the most notable being the fact that our rental car company had given us a flat spare tire. But I'll get to that; first, the crew took a drive out to the hippo pool, about 20km away from camp. We saw hippos, baby zebra, and some goofy horned creatures; it was a lovely ending to our adventure. Unfortunately, the um, most adventurous aspect of the trip was yet to come.

Our badly degraded tire in the morning light... but, we
made it back and saved the rim. 
About 15 minutes and 10km till camp, around 530pm, we clipped the side of a large fallen branch, resulting in a flat. A bit stressful so close to dark and at the end of the trip, but certainly nothing we couldn't handle. We expected a flat on this trip, so when it happened, Tate jumped out of the car, ready for her moment to shine (she had read up during the drive where everything was in the car... she was prepared). Aimee and Tate took charge of the tire, and all seemed good to go. Around half an hour until complete darkness we begin lowering the jack... And our stomachs drop with it. The spare tire is completely flat. The sun is about down. There have been numerous cat sightings today. Without much time to panic, we all jump back in the car, and decide to see if we can go really slowly on the flat without riding on the rim. We realize in about 30 seconds, we can’t. We have about 20 minutes of daylight left, and we're forced to make a decision: Do we sleep (well, try to sleep) in the car tonight, with the cooler in the back, and hope we don't attract anything unwanted (most likely just monkeys that would bother us… but…) and wait till someone finds us in the morning? Or do we try to change the tire back, which is punctured in such a way that it could probably, maybe, hopefully protect the rim to get back to camp? We decide that while there is a chance to do something about it, we might as well. I have only seen one person change a tire faster than we did the second time around and I do not know if I can put into words the relief we all felt once that tire was changed and we were all back in the car. I take over in the driver’s seat, and Aimee has her head out the window, keeping a close eye on the tire, while the women in the back take over navigation, making sure we don't make a terrible wrong turn through the unmarked and now-dark roads. Crawling at about 2km/hr, it takes a two and a half long hours to get the 10km back to camp. We could have walked faster, except for the whole lions, leopards, and hyenas thing. We kept an eye out for animal eyes (and we're a bit disappointed we didn't see hyena… well in the morning, after we had slept back at camp, and were safely on the road home), a close eye on the steadily degrading tire, and dodged a staggering number of potholes that threatened to rip the tire away from the rim. But, we made it, saved the rim, and left the spare tire in a condition that it could be repaired so we could make it back to Maun. We were a little traumatized... but also left with the feeling that we were able to handle a lot, that we were pretty tough, and that the weekend was full of accomplishment. 

Throughout this trip, gender roles were on my mind. In planning, we were asked, "Now, you girls are bringing men with you, right?" (that gem is from the guy who also told me it was exceedingly sandy… false.). To be fair, many people thought we would be just fine, and I did have my own doubts about our capabilities as well. This wasn't your average girl's weekend- we took on roles that girls aren't always encouraged to do, and thus didn't have some experience that others might. Yet, we managed just fine (thank you) and we didn't have to abandon traditionally feminine roles either; there were plenty of awws over baby animals and campsite discussions on feelings. This trip made me recognize how lucky I am to be in a position in which I can talk about how a charging elephant made me feel, while also having the knowledge, skills, and confidence in both to aid the group in getting out of a sticky situation involving a tire. It was really, really nice to move beyond some outdated, predetermined box set of roles and explore and test just what five young women were capable of, a little outside of our comfort zones. 

With that, here are some more of my favorite wildlife photos from the trip:

We saw what felt like thousands of buffalo and elephants on the marsh!
They're just such goofy animals.
Pretty leopard sitting in a tree
We watched a pack of wild dogs playing from our campsite!
Elephant on the Savuti Marsh.
Very thankful for a friend's guidance and suggestions leading to four full mane lions!
Lion cubs... doesn't get much cuter!

*most of the pictures are mine, but thanks to go my travel companions for some of the group shots :)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


October in the States means crunchy leaves, scarves and boots for crisp air, rain, Duck football, pumpkins,
and halloween. Oddly enough, in the southern hemisphere some of my typical October identifiers remain; I still follow football and we have plenty of crisp and orange leaves, but that is where the similarities end.

October in Botswana means unrelenting 100+ degree days. Constant sweat dripping, a near inability to walk anywhere far from 10am-3pm, lots of sunscreen, walking around with an umbrella to protect myself from the intense rays (I swear I am getting wrinkles here), sleeping on top of the sheets to the whir of my fan, and cold bucket baths... sometimes twice a day for a little oh-so-sweet relief from the incessant heat. It also means nearly everything is dried up, and much of what remains green is poisonous to livestock, so they walk into houses in search of food if you're not paying attention. It means the bugs return in full force, from the mosquitoes to the drone of the cicadas. Oh, and the snakes come back out.

Not everything October brings means an increase in my general discomfort. Many of the trees seem to be bursting with purple flowers among all of the dried and crunchy bush surrounding them.

At least everyone says the rain is coming early this year. Plus, I have plenty of fun planned to escape (or take advantage of) the heat this summer!