Sunday, 21 June 2015

May 23: Making fire when it's cold

It was about 2° at 6 AM. Think about that for a moment in the context of open air showers.

I personally didn’t sleep well because of the cold. I spent most of the night shivering under the thin blankets. So far, all the places we have stayed have had thick duvets, and I have been too hot; the first place we need them, they don’t have them. Go figure.

And if you think we are cold, our guides for a walk in the bush this morning were native San bushmen (who could speak no English) dressed in little more than shorts and an animal skin wrapped around their shoulders. The primary focus of the walk was desert medicines, including contraceptives, anti-nauseants, fertility drugs and headache remidies.

The San are the nomadic tribes of the Kalahari, meaning they are in Botswana, Namibia, a bit of Zimbabwe and parts of northern South Africa. Their lifestyle is pretty simple; they hunt some kinds of antelope using bows and spears, and manage to live off various insects and grasses that are on the land. They live in groups of ~100 individuals. They’ve been around for as long as there have been people on the planet, and in fact the San are your ancestors. They are one of 14 tribes with direct DNA linkages for all human kind.

But their culture is disappearing quickly, and conservation is to blame. As of 2013, Botswana now forbids hunting of game, which is what the San lived on. In addition, they declared a massive chunk of the country the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a National Park. They rounded up the San who lived there and moved them into “villages” far away from their native lands; villages with +1,000 inhabitants (note: this forced relocation started in the 1950's). They issued them with goats and sheep and told them to stop being nomadic and become farmers.

The World Wildlife Foundation and GreenPeace both tout the tremendous “victory” for the wildlife of the decision to ban hunting – though that ban is rapidly destroying a culture, just the way it puts intense pressure on that same culture in Canada and the USA for the same reasons. Now the San can’t hunt (and are checked regularly to insure they don’t), can no longer be nomadic, can’t live in their homeland, need to raise goats or sheep that they don’t know how to do and don’t like to eat anyway, are forced to live in villages much bigger than they want or are used to, and somehow have to get jobs to earn money to buy meat to eat. 

I guess Botswana hasn’t learned from North America’s mistakes.
Our 4 guides. Aged 28-36 
He looks 15. And cold 
How they carry... 
...water. In an ostrich egg. 
We shadow the work of digging up roots
At one point, they found a beetle on a bush...
No idea what kind, but it's cute
...grabbed it, pulled it's legs off, and said it was good to eat but needed cooking first. I thought they would save it for later, but no. They sat down and went to work.

For me, the best part was watching them make fire. I have seen it done before, but probably 35 years ago in outdoor survival training.
Two different sticks, two different woods. 
The fireboard part, obviously well used
Let the friction begin 
Slow to catch in the damp of the morning 
But catch it does 
The fire's on, where's that beetle? 
Cooking up a storm
The San don't build fires for fun. They build them to cook or get warm. The moment they are done with them, they stamp the fires out. First, the fuel is too precious to wast, and second, they understand the risk of unintentionally starting a wildfire that burns up the whole desert. 

As we travelled north, we passed one of the new “towns” created for the San.
Water is delivered, the only way water can be obtained 
The centre of town 
The school, which has a pass rate of 27%
We also saw our first baobab tree. Our tour guide, Leban, who grew up in a rural village in Zimbabwe 40 years ago told us about all the uses of the tree. We all got a chance to taste the fruit (tasty, sweet, but dry and chewy).
40' wide trunk on a 70' tall tree 
You eat those white lumps 
A sense of scale of the trunk 
Lots of mass to the tree 
Lots of shade, too
The area around Maun is heavily used for cattle grazing. There are cattle all over the road, and clear evidence of overgrazing in areas.
Ain't no grass left 
A typical "farm" 
Goats turning whatever is left to sand

As we got closer to the Okavango delta, we saw, for the first time since leaving South Africa, rivers that contained actual consequential water.
The Nihabe River
We got into our camp…
We pass a Namibian Ferrari on the way in 
Our camp no longer has the croc farm 
The inside of home 
The outdoor shower
…for lunch, then went into Maun. It’s not much of a town, but is a jumping off place for trips into the delta.
How the locals travel long distances
We did some money stuff (because despite everything we read and were told in advance, US cash isn't really useful in Botswana, so we had to change money to Pula, the local currency), then came home to prepare for our fly in adventure into the delta, a place I have always wanted to see.


Today’s Africa Travel Tip: The value of a dollar

My mom always tried to teach me the value of a dollar. But it’s a concept that gets turned around in your head when you come to a place like Africa.

You might complain about them, but your ability to come to Africa puts you in that “1%” that everyone seems to hate these days. It is obvious when you come to Africa that most African people are managing just fine, but their version of “normal” is your version of abject poverty. Our Nomad guide tells us stories of his life in his village; that even though they left the house for the day to move their goats or sheep or cattle, they took no food, because they ate from the land. If they didn’t find food, they went hungry. You would not consider doing this. You take your $5 and go to Subway.

I have been in a bunch of grocery stores here, and the prices are kind of comparable to where I live. Some things, like meat in Botswana, are far cheaper (you can get a nice looking T-Bone for $3, a whole chicken for $4). The buying power of your dollar here is generally similar, maybe a little better. But you have money.

The San, for example, have no money. Makes it hard to shop. They can’t hunt. Makes it hard to eat. So $2 dollars to you is nothing, whereas $2 to a San is dinner for 4 days or more, since they can buy meat (remember, they can no longer hunt) and get everything else from the land.

After our tour from the San folks today, we tipped each of them $2. They were so happy and thankful for that; I thought they were going to kiss me. I lose $2 coins and don’t care. That’s my value. They get to eat. That’s theirs.

Sadly, near as we could tell, none of the other 14 people on the tour tipped them at all. I guess they must have figured that the $10 per person total cost of that tour was enough to pay 4 San, a translator guide, and the company they work for – even though they do exactly 1 tour per day. Somewhat less than anyone’s definition of a living or minimum wage.

I find it interesting on this tour that while (wisely) everyone wants things to be cheaper, when faced with the opportunity to potentially make a direct difference to someone through tipping that extra inconsequential (to them) dollar, they don’t do it. Virtually no one else tipped them when they danced last night, either. Sigh.

Amazing how people have different definitions of the value of a dollar.

So please, if you come here, tip heavily (it’s an extra $2, and you paid $7,000 to come), tip often, and make a difference because you can.

Friday, 19 June 2015

May 22: A long boring drive

We picked up our new travellers this morning (two Brits on the last leg of a year-long round the world journey), and were on the road by 8:15. The mountains surrounding Windhoek were kinda nice…

Rolling hills that look interesting
…but soon we were on a high endless arid plateau.

Ah. It's flat again
At times it got a little greener…

Pretty rangeland
…but mostly as we worked our way west towards the Kalahari desert, it just got flatter and flatter, and shrubbier and shrubbier.

The busy highway 
Laban & Rimson seeing who's faster 
A lake -- a LAKE -- near Gobabis 
The vastness of the Kalahari
Our big stop for the day was Gobabis, which features some Herero tribe and some San tribe members.

Love Herero headresses 
The colours they choose are nice, too 
The idea of long dresses in the desert is interesting 
And capes. Did I mention capes?
We crossed into Botswana and lost an hour (Namibia does daylight savings time).

Normally, you can't tae pictures at Border posts, but they said this was OK
Then it was just 3 more hours of slogging down a paved road with little more than the odd baboon for interest until we arrived at Ghanzi, our home for the night, where we arrived just after sunset.

Typical beautiful African sunset
We pulled in at 6:40 PM and had a 7 PM dinner call. Where we are staying, Ghanzi Trail Blazers, is a San bush camp themed lodge. There’s only solar electricity during daylight hours, and a generator until 10 PM and from 5 AM to sunrise. Hot water is provided in a central boiler heated by a wood fire (biomass heating is WAY worse for the environment from a CO2 perspective than gas or oil, by the way -- but then there is no gas here). Hot water is only available from about 6 AM to about midnight. Bathrooms are private but lack a roof; you can sit on the john and watch stars – but they’re a might bit cold given that it was 6° at 10 PM tonight.

John & shower... 
The view from the shower. Note the "no roof"
After a typical African meal of pap and beef stew, we were entertained by San bushman dancing.

Staying warm by the fire 
Acacia seed pods as rattles on their legs 
Snake hunting 
It was virtually identical to the North American First Nations dancing that you see where I live, though not as colourful. Since I’m not into that, I didn’t find the chanting and foot stomping that interesting.


Today’s Africa Travel Tip: Long rides

Pull out a map of most any African country and they look fairly small. However, this is deceiving. For instance, both Namibia and Botswana are each about the size of France. My safari covers over 5,600 km, kinda like driving from Vancouver to Halifax. So there are some long distance days on safari. What to do on a day-long truck ride?

Well, the primary winner is the iPad. All but 5 people on my safari have them. They read e-books; look at, take and edit photos; play games; write e-mails for later sending; track the route on maps; and listen to music. Everyone who has one raves about it as a godsend to travellers. I somehow ended up doing IT support for all the iPads.

The second most popular pastime is sleeping. We have early starts and late finishes, and the scenery isn’t always stunning (mostly yes, but oftentimes not).

Third is looking out the window. Often, there are animals to try to spot, interesting farms, cool birds, neat mountains, striking landscapes, fascinating towns and villages, and unique signs.

There are a few pencil and paper game players, but that’s tough on a truck bouncing around on bumpy roads with the windows wide open and 2 x 60 air conditioning working full force, as is playing cards.

Some people don’t appear to do anything. That seems strange to me. Others read paper books, magazines, or newspapers they have purchased, but the general consensus from the travelers who do this a lot is the iPad is easier, lighter, and more versatile than lugging magazines and books.

But come prepared to cross vast plains of widely spaced, 10’ tall trees and bushes that goes on for hours and hours, like those on the Windhoek to Ghanzi run, that block views of any animals or terrain.