Zambezi: Part One

I recall watching a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode that featured the Zambezi River. The TV show host, Marlin Perkings, showed animals nervously drinking from the muddy river, hoping to quench their thirst and not become dinner for the huge crocodiles that lurked nearby. It wouldn’t be a nature show if it didn’t show the waters erupting in flurry of reptilian jaws as some poor antelope was snatched and dragged into water and its doom, completing the ‘Circle of Life’.

Back then I wanted to be Mr. Perkings and witness the life and death dramas played out every moment on the African plains and riversides. I didn’t know that, to catch those sequences of life and death struggles, film crews waited days, sometimes weeks to shoot just one clip. Life and death and everything in between plays out at its own pace oblivious to the wants and machination of Man. But I didn’t know that back then. I thought Africans saw such happenings daily, like we see cows, pigs and chickens on local farms or dogs and cats in our urban homes. All one had to do was go there and witness these spectacles play out like scheduled Broadway shows.

Fast forward about 50 years, as much life experience and the luck of being selected by the Peace Corps to serve in Namibia. I now know that even back then the Wild Kingdom film crews were lucky to get the shots they did. Even so, when the opportunity to go to the Zambezi Region of Namibia came about I couldn’t help but hope to see African wildlife near rivers or hanging out and doing whatever it was that African wildlife does. Specifically, I wanted to see elephants in the wild. I’ve seen zebras, and giraffes, warthogs and baboons, herds of Rock Hyraxes and Springboks, flocks of Love Birds and flamingoes, even a huge colony of penguins, but I’ve yet to see a single elephant in the wild. The Zambezi trip was a real chance to rectify that.

The trip to the Zambezi Region was work related, I’m part of media crew and we were to document the daily routine of a teaching volunteer assigned to a remote village.

When I first found out that I was actually going to spend 2 years in Africa I fully believed that I would do it living in a mud hut, cooking my daily gruel over an open fire and spending my days building schools, aqueducts, or figuring out how to grow crops in a land with an annual rainfall of less than a tenth of an inch per year. Never mind that I hadn’t so much as camped in my backyard and every houseplant I owned was artificial because I always managed to kill the live ones. We Americans have such a narrow view of the rest of the world. So it was a big surprise when I learned that my assignment was in a fairly modern town, my home for my two year stay is a relatively large 4 bedroom house with hot and cold plumbing. My office has a large, sun filled window and air conditioning. On most weekends I can get a croissant that rivals the best I’ve had anywhere. I was honestly more than a little disappointed. I really wanted the ‘African Experience’.

As it turns out, not every Peace Corps volunteer winds up in offices in some urban center, some actually do get to stay in mud huts and eat traditional foods while executing their Peace Corps duties. The volunteer we interviewed in the Zambezi Region was one such lucky person. She stayed in a Silozi Homestead and taught science at the local school.

When I learned that I was going to go to the Zambezi Region with my media crewmates I was excited. Five-plus days in a region famous for its wildlife, its simpler way of life, its very ‘African Climate’. How could I not be stoked? We even planned to sleep in tents during our stay. Turns out we had to because the village is so remote there aren’t any commercial or semi-commercial lodgings available. We’d set up our tents outside the volunteer’s compound, cook over an open fire (on occasion it turns out), and live, as much as we could, like the locals. We’d truly be getting a fuller sense of the ‘African Experience’.

To top all of that off, there was a very good chance we’d see elephants in the wild! Oh boy! Oh boy! OH BOY!!!

The day came to travel, which I normally have no problem with. As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are not allowed to drive anytime during our service. A cruelty meant to keep us safe. So, we travel as the less affluent Namibians do, we hike. A fellow volunteer and media crewmate, Maggie, hiked with me, so the first leg of our two-day trek was with familiar company and through familiar territory. We hiked to Otjiwarongo (pronounced, “Oat-gee-var-rongo”), the gateway to the northern regions, then to Rundu (Pronounced: “Rune-doo” and you trill the ‘R’.) where we took lodging and met up with the rest of our team.

All packed up and ready to go!

Rundu is a large town as towns go in Namibia. It has all of the amenities, including rush hour traffic. We spent one night in there and found a transport to Katima, the capital of the Zambezi Region. If you take a look at a map of Namibia you’d see why this leg of the journey is so interesting. Zambezi is the easternmost region connected to the bulk of Namibia by geo-political isthmus, a strip of land that starts in the Kavango East Region to the west, with Angola to the north and Botswana to the south. The single major roadway is B8 and, as I was told, “here, there be elephants!”

We were lucky enough to get a driver who had a small 7-seat vehicle, which we filled with equipment and ourselves. I sat in the copilot seat, camera ready to record the largest land mammal in its natural setting. Of course I was excited when we set out that morning. Partly cloudy skies meant a cooler trip, and I had a commanding view of the road ahead. After an hour or so of our 5 hour trip we started seeing elephant crossing signs. I took them as a good omen. Elephants would soon appear grazing languidly along the roadside, mother pachyderms shielding their rambunctious kids from trucks and other road hazards, agitated bulls flaring ears and shaking their huge heads, trumpeting at our intrusion. My hands became sweaty as I griped my camera in anticipation.

They promised elephants!!

After 2 hours the only animal life we saw were dogs, donkeys, cows, goats and, occasionally, their herders. Not exactly wild, but the cows, donkeys and sheep tended to play in traffic, crossing the road whenever the moods struck them. Still the signs we saw promised elephants, and began to be emphatic about it. First you’d see the elephant crossing sign then several meters behind you’d see another, but one had a ‘!’ sign above it as if to say, “Elephants! No, really! We’re not kidding!! Elephants!!” If my excitement was waning it was rekindled after seeing these signs. There must be elephants ahead. Patience, Vern! Patience!!!

Donkey determined not to let us pass

4 hours into the trip and the signs promising elephants, even the insistent ones, seemed no more than a lie. We had passed fields, rivers and flood plains with pools of water, perfect places for elephant hangouts, or so I thought, but we saw none. Our driver explained that it was mid afternoon and the beasts were likely deeper into foliage, were its cooler and away from people.

Trust us! Elephants here!

Well, that’s just great! No elephants! Maybe we’ll see some on our return trip.

We arrived in Katima late in the afternoon. Katima is the largest town in the Zambezi Region and also a shopping hub for the region. You can pretty much find anything you might want or need in the stores and shops, but the best place to go if you want to see real Namibian shopping is the open market, where local vendors offer up everything from fish, to handmade tuxedoes. It’s a cacophony sounds, smells, and sights all vying for your attention. It’s hard not to look like a tourists there. Even I stood out, my mannerisms were so un-local-like. I supposed me whipping out my camera didn’t help me blend in much either, but I couldn’t help it. There was beauty everywhere.

My teammates spent plenty buying chitenges and souvenirs. Even I bought a traditional dashiki.

We camped out in the living room of a local volunteer which foreshadowed our sleeping arrangements for the next seven days. Concrete floors are not the most comfortable, especially for an aging body like mine. Sleep was elusive.

The next day we got a ride to our final destination late in the afternoon. When we finally arrived at the small village, a little more than several homesteads near a minor crossroads, the sun was setting, we still had to setup our tents and arrange for dinner.

Did I mention that I’ve only slept in a tent 3 times in my life, and have set up a tent twice before? I’d never set up a tent in the dark and the tent I had, one I borrowed from a friend, looked easy enough to construct, so I wasn’t worried. It had only one tention pole, after all. How hard could it be?

Woman and child fetching water in the village where we stayed

45 frustrating minutes later my humble temporary abode stood, somewhat lopsided, in the sand. To the credit of its designers, not my ability to figure it out, the tent accepted me and my belongings without collapsing and I was able to get into my sleeping bag without too much ceremony. After a light dinner and media team meeting I settled into my new sleeping arrangements determined to make the best of the experience.

So ends the first part of my Katima journey. More to come shortly.

Stay tuned.


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