Sunday, January 15, 2017

~ Wild Africa, part II ~


“Wildness is a necessity” ~ John Muir

Denise, Keith, and Robert Griego ~ Kalahari Desert ~ Botswana, Africa

Our first trip into the wild bush of Botswana was only 20 miles from home.  There are three of us on my motorcycle as we leave the paved road of Gaborone.  Keith is tightly between me and Denise and he can barely move.  The dirt road is full of wash boards that make the going slow.  There is a mountain that is not very high but we plan to climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area.

"A fierce army attacked us without warning"
The top of this mountain will be a perfect spot for our picnic lunch.  As I park the bike, they come down the hill like a mad army catching us off guard.  Ten, twenty, maybe more, some followers but others fierce leaders.  "Denise, carry Keith, and start moving back towards the bike" I say as calmly as I can.  "Do not run, and walk slowly."  I pick up a stick that is now above my head.  My stick will be no match for them, but I hope to deter them some if needed.  Their large teeth are clearly visible.  Their loud barking is only getting louder as they come towards us, some jumping in the air, clearly agitated.  This army is a group of wild baboons that own this mountain.  Baboons can easily tear an animal apart with those big teeth.  Our retreat convinces them that we do not want a confrontation and they begin to settle down.  Never the less, we get on the bike and speed away towards the Gaborone Dam where peaceful birds abound.

I'm settling into my job and assuming the duties of a Game Warden, Administration with more confidence.  There are about fifteen administrative staff who support the Department in accounting, procurement, personnel, mails and files, and warehouse operations.   Lucas Seguco is responsible for the warehouse operations and I like him immediately.  "Hi Bobby, we need to deliver supplies to the Game Scouts living in the bush.  They depend upon us."  No one, except my mom, ever called me Bobby.  Lucas is a hard working employee and will be a invaluable as we wander some lonely tracks into the wild bush of Botswana. 

Game Scouts, Director Matenge, Senior Game Warden Anthony Ziegler, and auctioneer
Before we go into the bush, the Department will conduct an auction from confiscated animal furs and horns.  These wildlife items will bring revenue into the Department's budget.  Senior Game Warden Anthony Ziegler is in charge.

We will take one of the Departments 4 wheel drive Land Rovers, a tent, and a 30.06 rifle.  I owned this same rifle in Montana, went deer hunting with my Crow friends, and know how to use it.

Once we leave the established dirt roads, we begin to follow faint tracks into the bush.  Lucas is continually asking people that we meet for directions.  We are heading towards Nxai Pan National Park.  There we would meet Tuppence, a Department of Wildlife and National Parks Game Scout.  He is responsible for patrolling this National Park, some 2,500 square kilometers.  He tells us that within the mopane woodland, there are lion, giraffe, kudu, impala, ostrich, springbok, jackal, and bat-eared fox.  Once the rains have started, gemsbok, elephant and zebra migrate to the area. 

Game Scout Tuppence ~ Nxai Pan National Park
He is living alone and welcomes us graciously to his camp.  He is wearing his uniform smartly and looks every bit a Game Scout in the bush.  "How do you patrol such a large area" I ask.  His answer is simple, "Well, I use to have a donkey but the lions ate it.  Then, they gave me a bicycle and it was very good, until the thorns punctured the tires.  Now when anyone comes by, I ride with them, and patrol the Park."  

One Game Scout and one National Park ~ amazing.   We leave him some much needed supplies and he is very appreciative for them, though I sense he loved the company even more.

Lucas is Setswana and has such an easy going personality that I wish I could bottle up and take back to America with me.  "Bobby, the bridge looks unsafe."  "I'll walk across it first, then you come if the boards hold up for the Land Rover."  I nod that I understand and hold back on the Land Rover with the gear in neutral.  Lucas is bouncing up and down on the boards and then, with arm waving, motions me forward.  The boards creak and we slowly cross the bridge that may have been unused for a long time.  He gets back into the Land Rover and we continue on a faint track towards Chobe National Park.  We camp in the bush, and in the night is the unmistakable sound of a leopard.  In the morning, lion tracks are all around us.  The lions had walked directly next to us and must have eaten well earlier, as they did not bother us.  We never saw the leopard.

Then, we stop abruptly.  The flat tire sees to that.  I once heard that two Peace Corps volunteers had twenty-seven flats on a similar trip.  After the spare tire is used, then they had to patch the tubes over, and over, and over again.  Our flat tire is fixed and we continue down the faint track.

Our 1st flat tire - towards Chobe National Park

That's when all hell breaks loose.  "Roll up the windows, tight" Lucas shouts.  It is hot but the Tsetse fly is persistent.  Soon, they are coming up from the floor boards and we are frantically trying to kill them.  It is very hot inside and Keith is now crying.  The Tsetse fly carries the sleeping sickness and this is a serious moment, so the windows remain up.  We kill twenty or so of the flies that managed to find their way into the Land Rover.  I see Lucas shiver as the danger has passed.  "Ok, Bobby, you can roll down the windows, they are gone."  I love Lucas, he is astute and pulled us through this difficult time.  Chobe National Park is within two days of driving but we will camp at Savuti Channel tonight.

""The charge begins"
"I barely escape his charge"
The hippo is in the water a good distance in front of me.  He seems at ease as I walk forward with my camera in hand.  Then without warning, he charges.  He lunges out of the water towards me, and I am taken back by his speed.  I run backwards as fast as I can and narrowly escape his charge.  Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal.  I knew this, yet, this hippo made me really appreciate this fact.  This is the real deal, wild Africa.

Lucas, says that there are some prehistoric paintings here, up in the rocks.  We search and find them.  This piece of earth is perhaps the most wild I've ever seen and we have not seen another person in days.

Our first sight of the Chobe River ~ wild and amazing
Pictographs ~ Savuti Channel
Soon, we are at the outskirts of Chobe National Park after three days of driving through the bush from Maun.  Lucas has never been here and neither have we.   The Chobe River stops us cold.  It is breath taking.  There are crocodiles and hippos in the water and we are clearly deep into the wild Botswana bush.  We hope to find Jerry Neville soon; we will spend several days with him.  He lives in a large house with 4 or 5 bedrooms.  He lives here by himself and welcomes all of us to his home.  Jerry is another United Nations Volunteer from Australia and also works for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.  He reports to Senior Game Warden Mike Slogrove.  Mike and his family live here and recently experienced a devastating accident.  Mike's wife was killed in an accident when her gas stove exploded and killed her.  At the time, she had one child that I remember. 

Her name is Sue.  As fate would have it, we would meet her again thirty-five years later on our second trip back to Botswana.
Keith Griego and Thomas ~ Jerry Neville's Honda 250cc
I love Chobe National Park.  It is wild with free roaming elephants, lions, hyenas, zebras, and wart hogs everywhere. 

"Jerry, how far is it to Victoria Falls" I ask.  "It is about 60 miles on a dirt road, but I've never been there," he adds in his thick Australian accent.  Jerry offers to lend us his Honda 250cc if we want to make the trip.  "If you could watch Keith, we could be back before dark" I suggest.  Jerry adds, "Of course" and with that we begin to inspect his motorcycle for the trip in the morning.

Jerry rides a Honda 250cc and it is full of petrol and he again reviews with me how it works and where his tools are stashed.  Jerry's cat, Thomas, sits on top while Keith plays with him.  Without too much fan fare, Denise and I are off for Victoria Falls in Zambia.  The ride there was uneventful and our first view of the Victoria Falls is spectacular.

Victoria Falls
We approach the edge of the falls, take pictures, and then hear unexpected gun shots.  Our first instinct is to duck.  The shots are being fired from across the river.  Then shots are being fired from our side of the river and with a few pictures it was time to get out of Dodge. 

The trip back to Chobe National Park is easy going until we stop for a short rest on the side of the road.  Then off to our right, unknown to us, stands a big bull elephant.  He quickly shows aggression, his trunk trumpeting, and his legs pawing the ground fiercely.  Once his head goes down, he is on a dead run directly for us.  "Kick start the bike fast, and don't stall it," I scream silently to myself.  The Honda 250cc accelerates quickly.  In the rear view mirror, I see the bull elephant losing ground behind us.  It was third gear before I barely out distanced the charging bull elephant.  On the way back to Chobe National Park, I try not to think what could have happened if that bull elephant had caught us.  I could have stalled the bike and it would have been history. 

"We narrowly escape his charge"
When we get back to Jerry's house, we grab Keith and didn't let go for a long, long time.  While Chobe National Park was our first real trip into the bush, it would not be our last. 

Mike and Karen Davis, Peace Corps Volunteers, would come with us into the Botswana bush.  Jonathon Mowepsa has replaced Lucas at work and he too would accompany us.  This time, we traveled with a large 5 ton Bedford truck, capable of carrying large amounts of essential supplies to the outline posts.  We all bring whatever we can to contribute for our food for the journey.  When we pick up Jonathon in his village, he is tightly holding a rooster in his arms.  That first night in the bush, we stop and make camp.  "You can kill my rooster for dinner tonight," Jonathon says.  Mike and I agree and grab the rooster.  Our plan is to take our axe and cut off its head quickly.  It's dead, but not as quickly as we hoped.  We pluck the feathers and it cooks slowly and perfectly over our campfire.  As we pass around the meat, Jonathon says that he can not eat it.  "Why not, it is cooked perfectly" we say.  "It was my pet rooster, and I can not eat it" he says.  Quiet is all around us.  He had brought everything he had for our trip and it was his pet rooster.  Even though we did not want to eat his rooster, it would be an insult to him not to eat it.  In time, we ate his rooster and thanked him graciously for his contribution.

That night, Mike, Karen, Denise, Keith, and I sleep under the 5 ton Bedford truck.  Jonathon prefers to sleep inside the cab.  Late into the night, Denise hollers "there are hyenas out there, and they tried to grab me."  Mike and I jump up in our underwear with the 30.06 in our hands and see nothing.  Our flashlights do not reveal any shining eyes.  We conclude that Denise was having a dream that any one of us could have had, after all we are deep in the wild bush.  Mike and I fall back asleep slowly, yet I keep one eye open.

The engine is making a terrible sound and we stop.  We are in the middle of the Kalahari Desert.  With the hood up, we look over the massive engine.  The oil dip stick does not show any oil, a bad sign for sure.  "We can't drive it much further without oil" Mike says.  "How stupid of me not to bring extra oil" I tell myself.  Jonathan has an idea.  "Perhaps, we can find a cattle post that might have oil for a well pump."

Horseman, Mike Davis, and Jonathon Mowepsa ~ Kalahari Desert in search of oil for our truck



This cattle post did not have oil ~ water was pulled up by hand
We begin walking, not sure of how far we would have to go before, and if, we find a cattle post.  We leave Denise, Karen, and Keith behind with the truck.  "Lay under the bed of the truck for shade and honk the horn if there is a problem" we say as we head off into the wild bush.  After several miles, we meet a man on horseback. Jonathon asks the man in Setswana "Do you know where there might be oil used for a water pump."  He is unsure but points in the direction that we should travel.  We follow his directions but find nothing.  We are tired and decide to head back to the truck where we will spend the night.  After several miles in the desert sun, we are tired, thirsty, and hungry.  Denise and Karen have a surprise for us.  They have made dinner ~ bean burritos, chili, with freshly made tortillas.  We can't hardly believe what they did.  Making tortillas from scratch at home is hard enough.  We eat, relax, and sleep.  We will decide what to do in the morning.

The engine is making painful noises.  It wants oil but we continue never the less along these desert trails.  As we reach Gaborone, the noise is deafening.  The head mechanic looks over the truck and shakes his head.  Trying to tell him about looking for oil is pointless, so we hand over the keys and leave quietly.

Our two years in Botswana go very fast and while we made more trips into the bush we also traveled to neighboring Lesotho, Swaziland, and South Africa.  These trips were not on my motorcycle but a used Volkswagen Beetle that we bought from a priest in Gaborone for $700. 

Keith Griego ~ Our broken down VW Bug
On our first trip into South Africa, the front right tire starts to make bad sounds.  I pull off the tire and discover the bearings on the hub are frozen preventing the wheel from turning.  In fact, the bearings are melted and now useless.  There we are stranded on a lonely dirt road, miles from the nearest village.  I remember seeing a small garage about 30 miles back and maybe they could order the part.  Just then, a truck stops and the driver looks down at the busted wheel.  He and his family are going in the direction I need to go and invite me to jump on to the back of their truck. 

"Do you have any parts that look like this one," I ask the man at this small garage.  "Let me see" and he begins rummaging through a box of spare parts.  I can't believe it but the used part he just found is a perfect match.  Imagine that, in the middle of nowhere, and I find the exact part that is needed.  I hitch a ride again and there is Denise and Keith trying to stay cool in the hot sun.  The bearing goes on easily.  I pack it with grease, mount the tire, and the repair worked!  In Africa, being resourceful goes a long way.  We continue onto Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Pretoria.

President Sir Seretse Khama, 1976 ~ Botswana's 10th anniversary
Botswana, perhaps the most democratic country in Africa, is celebrating ten years of independence.  The president is Sir Seretse Khama.  A very strong, well liked president.  In retrospect, we were so fortunate to be there at this important national event.

The Peace Corps Director thanks us for our service and explains that we could either get a prepaid airline ticket home or we could receive the cash equivalent.  We chose the cash and take 3 1/2 months traveling home with our backpacks and camping gear.  This journey would take us to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, and Tahiti. 

In Tanzania, we meet other Peace Corps volunteers from Botswana who are traveling home as well.  We all combine our money, rent a Volkswagen bus with a driver, and travel to Ngorongoro Crater for several days.  There are lions, elephants, zebra, giraffe, hyenas, gazelle, buffalo, all living in perfect harmony.  A perfect ecosystem.  We camp in the crater.

Before leaving Botswana, I decide to take along a book to read that I brought from Montana.  I would read it but never finish it.  The book immediately attracts my attention, but in reality, I would still be reading it unfinished, thirty-eight years later.  It was written by Robert M. Pirsig.  His story is called, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In Australia, Jerry Neville meets us at the Sydney Airport.  Earlier, we sent him a letter letting him know our plans and hopes to see him.  He is living with his parents and they graciously welcome us into their home on Rickard Street in Merrylands.  We go camping in the outback, see wombats and kangaroo, and climb the tallest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko -- all 7,310 feet.  Jerry takes us for a boat tour around Sydney and we see the famous Sydney Opera House.  We continue home, arriving at back at the Ontario Airport in California full of stories.  It was impossible to tell them all these stories without sounding like a pair of crazy travelers who had been lost in the desert for years. This 3 1/2 month journey home was amazing and memorable. 

Robert Griego and Sue Slogrove, 2006 ~ Mapula Lodge, Okavango Delta
Thirty-five years later, Denise and I would return to Botswana to once again touch the edge of wildness.   We would go there with the tour group, Road Scholar.  We were all looking forward to staying at the Mupula Lodge deep in the Okavango Delta.  We loved it.

The young lady who operates the lodge warmly greets us.  As we introduced ourselves, I said "Denise and I were here in Botswana 35 years ago.  I worked for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks."  She immediate asked if I knew a Mike Slogrove?"  This was Mike's daughter who I remember as a 3 year old.  She remembers sitting on Jerry Neville's motorcycle.   She also tells us that she operates the Chobe Crocodile Farm in Kasane.  A small world and I was very proud of her.

And, oh yes, I am still reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I am determined to finish the book this time.  At twenty something, I did not understand what Mr. Pirsig was trying to tell me.  At sixty something, I am still trying to understand what he is saying to me, but I listen closely this time.  His message is becoming more clear with each word, yet, deep down inside, I really do not want it to end.

I have also found something that had been forgotten years ago.  It is my detailed journal recording our plans, sights, and emotions as we left Botswana for America on that journey.  The journal records daily events that would be etched in our minds forever.  Some good, some not so good.  It would record the people we met, where we slept, the food we ate, and the wonders we saw.  All these images paint our adventure, after all we had just traveled around the world. 

This world was huge, wild, and we touched it.


The Chobe River ~ perhaps the most wild place in Africa

Tracks we must follow ~ there are no signs

Towards Chobe National Park



We must carry our petro ~ Lucas on top, towards Chobe National Park

Game Scouts and Keith Griego ~ Francistown
Game Scouts with confiscated ivory ~ Lucas, Denise and Keith Griego

Camping with Joe and Lynn Passineau ~ Kalahari Desert


Dr. Livingstone was here

Denise, Keith Griego and Lucas ~ Baobab Tree

Lucas inspects bridge that we will cross

Camp site ~ lions were nearby


These two lioness were 200 yards from our Savuti Channel camp

Savuti Channel


Keith and Denise Griego ~ Nxai Pan National Park camp

Denise, Keith Griego and Karen Davis
Joe Passineau ~ Kalahari Desert where we got stuck
Bushman Ladies and Robert Griego ~ Kalahari Desert



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