From the coast of Ecuador we headed up into the massive Andes mountains, to the town of Riobamba. From there we explored a number of neighboring sights and sites. The Chimborazo volcano is, arguably, the highest peak on the earth - while Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) is the highest from sea level, due to the "equatorial bulge" of the earth the summit of Chimborazo is actually the point furthest from the center of the planet, and the point closest to the sun. We took a city bus up to the entry of the natural reserve and then got a ride up with some Ecuadorans who were heading to the summit. We went up to 16,000 feet and the air was extremely thin, but it was well worth feeling dizzy/faint/irritable for the majestic views. In the
From India we flew traveled 80 hours straight, on planes trains and automobiles, to the little village of Ayengue on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. We explored the many beaches and delighted in being by the ocean again. I found the people of Ecuador to be consistently some of the friendliest I've ever met. Ecuador has a really relaxed, happy energy... we spent about a week decompressing and recovering from some massive jetlag before heading into the Andes mountains.
We went on another safari, this time in Samburu Nature Preserve. We saw many giraffes, about 20 elephants (including a magnificent lone bull who walked into our camp the morning we left) and 5 male lions among many other animals. We camped beside the river which the Samburu village uses several kilometres downstream. Our camp was raided several times by baboons, sometimes successfully. The baboons seemed pretty sharp and to work together - they would surround us and some would feign an attack while others moved in on the other side and tried to grab what they could. We were armed with sticks and yells and scared most of them off, but two of the braver big males still got away with some bread and a large container of granola! More or less 50% fun, 40% angering, 10% scary shit which got real. Around 6:00 am on the morning we left, we had a visit from a huge bull elephant who came within about 100 feet of our tent. We all just looked at each other for a while before he diverted his route into the river - got a picture of him crossing but not at the camp. It was a nice way to say goodbye to Samburu!
We spent last night in a Samburu village. The Samburu people are a tribe closely related to the Maasai of Kenya. Their children were awesome - some of the happiest, sweetest, warmest AND well-behaved kids I have ever met. They don't have toys, TVs, electronic/handheld devices or a bed time - they run loose and play outside together when they're not in school, and at night they sing together and dance! We all went down to the river to swim and helped bring water back to the village. At night the men sang and we danced with them around the fire. The village is built in a circle and is very much communal.
They are polygamists and can have more than one wife if they can afford it. The husband puts his spear in front of the house of the wife he is currently staying with, and rotates houses every two days or so. Wives cost between 10 and 15 cows, and we were told that therefore the Samburu value girls somewhat more than boys! That being said we were also told that men are in charge of the household, and can discipline their children and wives by whipping them with a thin stick. We saw this in action - when the kids were told to leave the area for adult activities, a man came out with a switch to beat them off if they did not leave. The children obeyed... that being said they were refreshingly well-behaved children even in the absence of a threat.
The Samburu believe that their god lives on a nearby mountain called Ololoque, which is an onomatopaeic description of its shape - a slow rise with a steep cliff descent on one side. Ololoque, which we could see in the distance, is a beautiful landmark where the Samburu sacrifice rams to pray for better weather and other requests.
At night the men of the village sang for us, though we were told that they do so every night. They also danced in a way similar to the Maasai (who I had visited in Kenya in 2005) by jumping up and down among other moves. We were invited to dance with them around the fire and I found that very fun and moving. It felt like reconnecting with ancient tribal roots and rituals which modern people have lost. I found myself sitting around the campfire later, watching the moon rise and reflecting on how happy and connected these people seemed. We talked about how there is a temptation to leave for the city for work, but I was told that most of the young people choose to stay in the villages.
We got robbed while on safari in Lake Nakuru... by a big baboon! We had barely stopped to check out a cliffside lookout when a huge male olive baboon rushed our Land Cruiser and jumped inside through the safari roof! A loud furry chaos ensued as he grabbed and tossled and bared his fangs out at us before jumping out a few crazy seconds later from the other side of the vehicle. He came for one thing only, and got it - he ran off with our lunch! Our driver told us "this never happens". The safari was great, we saw many animals including several rhinos, one of them only about 40 feet away.
We came to Kenya after a few days of rest in Pretoria, where we were hosted by an awesome couple called Walter and Hendrika who became new friends. They had one of the cutest/friendliest dogs I've ever met, Drumpel. We did NOT get a visa to go to Ethiopia, despite our many valiant efforts. I do not feel like recounting the insane process of trying to get an overland visa from that country while in South Africa - by this point the story is a past annoyance that completely took away the desire to travel to Ethiopia anyway!
We continued east into Chobe National Park in Botswana, where we found an abundance of beautiful animals. Many hippos, many elephants as well as buffalo, giraffes, lions, a plethora of birds and many more. We came across a herd of elephants within feet of our 4x4 - they seemed aware of but indifferent to our presence. They have such a calm, wise energy about them and I find it makes me happy to be around them, observing. Chobe is an exquisitely beautiful place.
From Chobe we made the crossing into Zimbabwe, and arrived at Mosikalamosikala or Mosi-oa-tunya ("the smoke that thunders"), aka Victoria Falls. These are some of the largest waterfalls in the world, and although we are currently in the dry season they were still majestic. A gargantuan quantity of water cascades down a deep, long fissure in the earth, resulting in a rumbling feast for the eyes.
In Vic Falls we bought a couple of $12 first class tickets on a sleeper train even more ancient than the one we rode to Cape Town. To book passage we had to walk through a troupe of nasty looking urbanized baboons which had more or less surrounded the train station! We arrived in Bulawayo and bought bus tickets to Pretoria. It is interesting to note the difference a border can make in terms of culture. Almost everyone we met in Zimbabwe was noticeably friendly if not outright warm and welcoming, whereas people in Botswana tended to be more closed off or aloof.
We headed to Pretoria to try and resolve a snag that came up for the next portion of our trip. Too annoying and boring to explain here, but we've been playing a complicated game of dominoes trying to line up the next few legs of our journey. The biggest problem is obtaining an Ethiopian visa in time.
We spent a couple of days eye-hunting for hippos and more elephants on the swelteringly hot Okavango Delta in Botswana. Unfortunately, though there was abundant evidence of pachyderms all around us (their enormous droppings were everywhere and two nights in a row I was woken up by their alarmingly loud bellowing in the forest) we saw no elephants here like in Etosha. No hippos either. We did see several impressive crocodiles, some monkeys and many beautiful delta birds. There are huge floating islands of papyrus, which thrive in the delta waters and through which hippos carve out canals - it was through these channels that we took our boat and canoes in a fruitless search for their creators. I took a video (click HERE) of one of the more narrow canals.
From the delta we headed north, to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. There as the sun set on the limpid waters of the Okavango River we found hippos - many many hippos! You can barely see them in my pictures... mostly their heads and their cute little ears which they shake the water off from when they emerge from underwater, blowing mist like whales.
I shot this video (click HERE) from the riverbank... a bunch of local kids dancing and throwing rocks or dung at a group of indifferent hippos, two of who yawn with their menacing maws. Hippos are the most dangerous mammal in Africa, and every year kill more people than lions or other big cats.
Yesterday we spent part of the evening with some of the San (bushmen) people of the Kalahari desert. They spoke to us via an interpreter (in their fantastic click-clicking language) of their traditional ways, and how they survived in this harsh environment for millennia. The San have always been my favourite culture/people based on readings and documentaries, and it was awe-inspiring to spend a bit of time with them. These ancestral people survived for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers (actually living in a balanced and harmonious way with nature), until the white/European colonialists came and forcibly displaced them. Since then the San have had a very difficult time - today we drove by a more modernized settlement where, their culture eroded and their traditional lands stolen, they have developed significant social problems (eg rampant alcohol abuse). This story is all too familiar - the same thing has happened for example with Native American peoples and Australian Aboriginals. The San we met last night are able to maintain many of their traditional ways by showing foreigners how they live or used to live. They felt happy and natural and seemed to be having fun proudly showing us healing herbs, how to hunt and gather, make fire and soften leather, etc. It was very cool to see and learn and be around them. They seemed to me a far gentler people, connected to the earth without being sappy about it. The oldest man in the group (I can't pronounce his name) is an accomplished hunter who did not know how old he was, except to say he remembers a time when white people just used ox-wagons.
The more I learn about African history the more I feel that the arrogance and greed of the colonial (and unfettered capitalist) attitude, in all its varied past and ongoing forms, is one of the most destructive and uglifying evils there is. It's the attitude that the earth, its creatures and plants and (especially native) peoples are all there for the taking. The belief that the earth is ours rather than that we are of the earth. The belief that militaristic might is right. Africa had some problems before the white man came (eg the pre-existing African slave trade facilitated the colonial slave trade). However, a lion's share of the reason so much of Africa is in a heartbreaking shambles has to do with what Europeans started doing here centuries ago. This exploitation is still going on now - much of Africa is still an economic colony and garbage dump for the developed world - and even where it isn't what's been left behind is a gaping wound that is still bleeding out. This has happened and is happening, in one way or another, all over the world. That the planet's on fire (or flooding, or whatever other calamity) is no surprise.
Yesterday we saw almost as many animals as the day before. About 50 elephants and countless giraffes, zebras and so on. What's more, we came across a lion feasting on a dead zebra, and witnessed the playfulness of two baby rhinos and their mothers by a watering hole last night. A bunch of elephants enjoyed the water hole while others kept watch and protected the young.
Things I learned from spending hours watching the watering hole:
Far from being dumb brutes, elephants and rhinos are highly sociable, playful and intelligent creatures. I already had this impression, but spending hours observing them made this absolutely clear. What's been and is being done to them and their habitat is sickening;
Elephants fart a lot. So do rhinos, though not as often nor with such hilarious resonance;
Life for these creatures, and many others in the wild, seems for the most part very slow, chill and relaxed while simultaneously alert, mindful and cautious. There is no big rush to get anywhere. Life is now, and here. All you really need to do is eat and not be eaten, drink water, make love, play and sleep. Don't let your big brain tell you otherwise. ;)
Giraffes are graceful and cautious. Zebras, while pretty, are skittish and damn vicious/violent with each other. Springbok are happy to gaze into the void a good part of the day. Jackals are cool, sneaky dudes.
At Etosha I took some videos of some pretty magical, uplifting things. Check these out:
Click HERE - A happy herd of elephants parading into a refreshing water hole;
Click HERE - a lioness and her two cubs
Click HERE - some brief rhino action
Click HERE - the impressive coordinated flight of red-billed quelea birds
So many beautiful animals. Today we saw 7 endangered black rhinos, a pride of 7 lions, about 50 elephants, well over two dozen giraffes and countless zebra, oryx and springbok. Some jackals, warthogs, ostriches, kudu, impalas, eagles, meerkats and mongoose, owls and other large and small birds as well. Two dead zebras as well. It is (surprise surprise) a particularly hot and dry year, so there are more animals clustered around the watering holes. This is fortunate for us, but not for them. Still, today was unforgettably awesome. Seeing lions in the wild is breathtaking. Seeing a herd of elephants parading into the water hole was just magical - I felt a great joy watching them frolic in the water, cooling themselves off and playing together. It was also bittersweet given what humans are doing to wildlife and wild places all over the earth. There is fortunately a program in place whereby many elephants have their tusks cut by rangers to protect them from hunters (same goes for many of the rhinos with their horns). That people could hunt these animals for trophies or money or pseudo-medicine seems even more repugnant to me after seeing their beauty (and intelligence) firsthand again today. It is good to see these last remaining pockets of wildness in the world - a reminder of what things were like before humans began trying to pave, exploit, commodify, wrap in plastic, pollute and uglify every natural wild place on earth!
We are at Etosha National Park, which covers over 22,000 square kilometers in Namibia. It is home to and protects countless springbok,25000 zebras, 4500 giraffes, 2500 elephants and 500 lions among many many other species. The number of rhinos is kept secret as yet another measure against hunters/poachers.