Thursday, August 27, 2009

Zambia Safari impressions

We’ve now been back a few days after an intensive 3-week trip to Zambia in south-central Africa. My impressions are still fresh but above all it was an authentic, classic safari experience. Everything felt real and genuine, from the greeting at Lusaka International Airport to the treatment we received at the various camps. The management, staff and guides at the various camps were friendly and accommodating, and did everything they could to keep us happy and entertained. But more than that, they seemed to take a genuine interest in us, from our dietary preferences to providing the right kind of adaptor, advising about a wireless internet hotspot, giving timely photographic hints, supplying a special lotion to ward of tsetse flies, and much more. We never ever felt like ‘just another guest’ or visitor – and this carried through to after-dinner conversations which were always lively and fun.

In summary, the trip was everything we had anticipated and more: remote, fantastic camps, excellent guiding, great views of a dizzying variety of mammals, birds and other wildlife, amazing scenic beauty, generally light tourism traffic except around Mfuwe, first class food and drink and seamless transfers between camps and national parks.

Activities were very diverse, ranging from game drives to walking, boating, fishing, observing wildlife from hides, night drives, and two firsts: a romantic private dinner for the two of us at Kapinga Camp on the Busanga Plains and a private lunch on the Zambezi River at Chiawa Camp, with some 'instant friends' we had made (a couple from San Francisco). There we were, drifting downstream on one of the mightiest rivers in Africa, being served sparkling wine and orange juice, and tucking into a delicious meal... What made the lunch even more memorable is the fact that our departure was delayed due to 'elephant interference' at the Chiawa dock. Only in Africa... If I had to pick a favorite all-round camp it has to be Shumba in the Kafue region. What a jewel, the rooms with their views over the Busanga Plains are breathtaking and the camp is being managed at a very high level - it need not take second place to any of the Botswana Premier Camps.

There were many many highlights. 6 (yes six!) sitatunga at Kapinga, a fantastic leopard & cub on a kill sighting ex Shumba, amazing lion viewing at Lufupa, predators galore in the Kaingo and Nsefu area, exceptional guiding at Kalamu (I'd walk into elephants any time with Petros and Luckson is one of the best all-round guides I have ever seen in action) and a though-provoking visit to a village near Kalamu. I am still sorting through the emotions I felt upon observing such staggering poverty on the one hand, and such 'joie de vivre' displayed by the many kids we met in the village. 'What is your name', 'how are you', 'take my picture'... All they wanted from us (other than for us to take their pictures) was a container to carry water to school. Not money, not food, just a container to carry fresh water.

This is Zambia – 20 little dusty kids pressing up against you to scan the camera playback screen for their likeness, exclaiming in delight when they saw themselves, or hamming it up with their friends for the next pic. No sullen faces negotiating payment for photographs, just pure, unadulterated joy in the face of seemingly overwhelming social problems.

As far as the tourism infrastructure goes, for a relatively small player on the African safari scene, we were impressed with how smoothly everything went. Over the space of 21 days, we experienced just one delay of more than 2 hours, all the other flights and transfers were right on time or within minutes of the scheduled times. Better than the USA. The road network inside the reserves was mostly adequate with some rough spots in Kafue, courtesy of hippo that seem to leave their deep footprint indentations on every square meter of muddy ground in the wet season. Certainly we’ve seen worse roads, such as in parts of the Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania.

With one or two minor exceptions everything in the camps worked: water was warm when it needed to be (the solar water heaters are amazingly effective!) the toilets flushed, there were adequate battery recharging facilities, and laundry was done at no extra charge. Kathleen did have a large hole burnt into one of her synthetic safari pants: it is probably best to let the staff know not to iron certain items. We did have an issue with lighting at one of the smaller bush camps but it is being attended to.

The food and catering in general were of very high standard, comparable with the best we have seen elsewhere. My special dietary request (vegan meals) was handled without a fuss, and it was simply a delight to enjoy such a wide variety of foods, including a few local specialties such as nshima, at the various camps. Fresh vegetables and salads, the most delicious home-made breads, creative desserts, baked goods, lots of legumes and grains, there was plenty there for even the most discerning palate. Omnivores would do pretty well too as there is invariably some kind of meat, chicken and occasionally seafood on the daily menu, plus of course eggs to order for brunch, several varieties of cheese, preserves and more. If there is one thing that is a given on safari, it is that guests are always well fed!

By and large insects were not too much of a problem, but Zambia is certainly a country for which one needs to take adequate protection: take your Malarone, apply mosquito repellant regularly, and wear long-sleeved shirts around dawn and dusk and in areas where tsetse flies are active during the warmer hours of the day. Tsetse flies were marginally bothersome in the Lufupa woodlands, but were effectively warded off with a lotion of Dettol mixed with water and Johnson’s Baby Oil. Tsetses seem to have been just about wiped out in the central and Nsefu areas of the South Luangwa, no problems there. At Kalamu Lagoon Camp, we really had to duck and dive to escape them, and in the warmer months of the year this could certainly be a problem. We hope that additional measures to combat them will be effective.

The 4-wheel drive vehicles were all spotless and in good condition, with ample leg room and unobstructed views. Most of the camps made use of a driver-guide plus a spotter/assistant, often a trainee guide. Predominantly men, with one notably exception: Freya, a female American guide at Kaingo. And excellent she was too! We cannot say enough about the quality of the guiding: it was as good as we had experienced anywhere in
Africa, and in some instances the best ever. Just one or two of the guides (for just a couple of game drives) could be described as ‘okay’, all the others were exceptional and some were a revelation. Like good sports commentators, the best guides anticipate and predict, beyond just reporting and interpreting. We experienced many instances of this, for example at Chindeni when our guide Peter saw ‘active’ hyenas and said that we should be on the lookout for leopards. We spotted a leopard – with its cub feeding on an impala carcass in a tree – barely a minute or two later.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A couple of days in Pretoria South Africa

Kathleen and I at Struben Dam in Pretoria. It was cold!

My brother Nick picked us up from ORTI Airport on Thursday evening and we drove to Pretoria along the N-2 freeway, which was under construction with additional lanes in both directions being added, together with several new access roads, bridges and other improvements.

It soon became apparent that many major routes in and around the city – especially those leading the 2010 World Cup of Soccer venues – are all under simultaneous construction. If you’ve lived in Houston over the last 8 to 10 years you will know exactly what I am talking about.

As always, it was great to see the family again. We very much enjoyed a reunion with all four children and my mother together again, the first time since Nov. 2007. None of us have changed over the years; we are just a bit older and hopefully wiser. Seeing close family members sporadically, sometimes after long intervals, can be a bit disconcerting. People whom you see all the time age almost imperceptibly. Not so people whom you see in intervals measured by years. They age visibly, just like you do. None of us are Dorian Gray, the only things about us that do not change are pictures taken years ago.

The following day Nick took us on a drive around the city, past my parents’ erstwhile home on Brooklyn Avenue. The house is now just a shadow of its former elegant past, its stately thatched roof replaced with faux Spanish brick tiles. From there we drove along Charles Street – under construction – through Sunnyside and Arcadia and then took a right turn up Edmond Street straight uphill to the Union Buildings. From the high hill on which this magnificent Herbert Baker-designed sand stone edifice was built, the gardens below it and the city beyond usually make for a superb spectacle. Not so on this Saturday. It was raining quite heavily by the time we parked the vehicle. The city was obscured by clouds and rain squalls, so I passed on taking any photographs.

On Sunday morning weather conditions were considerably better, and we took a pleasant stroll around Struben Dam, close to where Kathleen and I lived in the early 1980’s. I spent many happy hours here developing my fledgling birding skills, a hobby which I had just acquired on a visit to Cape Town in December 1983. Several dozen species on my Southern Africa ‘life-list’ of birds are marked ‘Struben Dam 1984’ – it was certainly the most productive spell ever in my life as a bird-watcher. Unfortunately the dam is now but a degraded and rather threadbare version of its erstwhile vibrant self. Ironically Struben Dam was once a real bird sanctuary before it was designated as one by the Pretoria City Council.

4 movies, 16 hours, 7 time zones

Saturday 01 August 2009

I woke up to the sound of rain yesterday morning. Not the heavy pounding of the rain I have grown accustomed to in Houston, but the light patter of rain on a tin roof, the rain of my childhood. It brought back happy memories of crisp spring mornings, flannel pajamas and sometimes – if we children could prevail on my mother – an afternoon snack of pannekoek, a South African version of crepes served with lots of sugar and cinnamon. A real treat.

Rain in Pretoria on an August morning means only one thing: a strong cold front from the Cape has blown bad weather a good 1,000 miles north into the interior. And so it was. The cold, blustery conditions which we have been experiencing here in South Africa the last few days are the complete opposite of the oppressively hot weather which we left behind in Texas. We’re hoping that it will be considerably warmer in Zambia by the time we arrive there on Tuesday next week. Otherwise those morning game drives are going to be awfully uncomfortable.

Our flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg on one of Delta’s new Boeing 777’s was uneventful and at least for me, less tiring than some previous trips. Sure the non-stop 16-hour flight is a doozy, but I much prefer this ‘bite the bullet’ approach of getting to Africa from the USA, over the 2-day trip via Europe. Of course, if one has the luxury of time to kill a few days in Paris or London or Amsterdam en route, by all means. But for just getting there, the non-stop Delta flight has a lot going for it. Arrival in Johannesburg is around 6:00P in the afternoon which is just in time for an overnight stay before going on to Botswana or wherever.

This was our first transatlantic crossing on Delta and we really have no complaints except perhaps about the catering. The ‘pure vegetarian’ meals (I got the exact same sauteed veggies and rice for dinner and breakfast) were adequate but unimaginative. The meal services in general were poorly executed with seemingly too few attendants serving the full plane of more than 245 people. Otherwise the seat was quite comfortable, the entertainment center had innumerable choices of movies, TV shows, and music and there were no refueling stops at dingy airports in Dakar Senegal or Ilha do Sol in the Cape Verde Islands.

Why is it that long-haul flying seems to be stuck in a time warp? Since the early 1980's we have seen computers evolve from the baby steps of an Apple IIe to the colossal strides of today's PC's and laptops. Upgrade your hard drive for an additional $200 or so and you can practically take the entire Library of Congress with you digitally, on your next weekend trip. Has crossing the Atlantic kept pace with that kind of reality-altering progress? Not exactly. It takes just about as long as it used to, 20 years ago: 'modern' aircraft have been traveling at about 500 mph for decades now. The flight attendants are grumpier, there is less legroom, the food is a lot worse and you'd better not hang around the front toilet area unless you are really keen to flush the undercover Federal Marshall on your flight. No pun intended.

A client of mine once remarked that his first ever long distance flight was on a Pan Am Clipper Constellation from the US West Coast to a South American destination. Probably sometime in the early 1960's. "(Flying) has been all down-hill since then," he said. If you are a rock star or a diplomat - or have gazillions of frequent flier miles - it might be possible to upgrade to the 'business elite' seats in the front of the plane. I think there were 19 of them on our flight. Having flown plain old business class on a transatlantic crossing some years ago, I can attest to the fact that it makes all the difference. These new seats are so much better - unless you are a basketball player you can lie down and almost stretch out. Imagine that, it's practically like taking a boat or a train. Except for the Federal Marshall of course. And the liquid in tiny bottles, taking off your shoes, your belt, jacket... Still beeping? Come with me, sir.