Monday, January 16, 2017

~ Wild Africa, part 1 ~

“Wildness is the preservation of the World” ~ Henry David Thoreau.  

Robert, Keith, and Denise Griego ~ our 1st trip into the wild bush of Botswana. 1975.

Africa is a magical, mysterious, and this faraway place soon to be destiny for this 26-year-old working for the National Park Service at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in the wilds of Montana.  

My name is Robert Griego.  

It is cold here, but I love the Crow and Cheyenne country that is our new home. My wife, Denise, and I grew up in sunny Southern California but this is Indian and cowboy country. They call this the Big Sky Country and Montana lives up to its slogan. The landscape is enormous and the night sky brilliant. The milky way and big dipper are within an easy hands reach in the darkness.  

The Bighorn River is perhaps one of the best wild, freshwater trout rivers in the world. The Crow and Cheyenne are masterful horsemen.  I love to see them ride horses; I love their spirit. My good friend Dave Small is a Crow and he shares his family, culture, and country with me freely. We would go deer hunting together much as the Crow did many years ago on horseback. We also played together on an all Crow basketball team that spoke Crow, except for me. My teammates hollered as the game began: "Just be Crow."

My Yamaha 350cc came with me from California but the Montana snows would prove too tough, so it stays mostly in the garage.

My job at Bighorn Canyon NRA with the National Park Service is great. In the mail, there is a piece of paper that is somewhat unreal. "...The government of Botswana, Africa is seeking a professional in the field of Administration to help us in the development of our National Parks..."  Denise and I have always wanted to go on an African safari but we couldn't afford it. My background is in Park Administration so I am interested. "The Peace Corps, United Nations, the Smithsonian Institute, and the National Park Service hope to attract qualified person(s) to help in the development of our National Parks."

That night, I share the job announcement with Denise. She's is elated. "Africa!  I think you should go for it" were her first words, holding nothing back. She was really the naturalist between us and I knew she would love Africa. And so, the thought process began. Africa! Why not me? "OK, but what about your son who is only 1 1/2 years old," I argue with myself. Doubt settles into my thoughts and I am very unsure of this decision to even apply for this job before me.

The questionnaire before us wants to know, "Why do we want to come to Botswana, Africa, and why are we perfectly suited for this assignment."  We were asked to assess each other and to describe why we thought our partner is really suited for this assignment.  In reality, I kept substituting the word adventure for the assignment.

"Once my husband starts a job, he continues until the job is finished." I read and then reread her words and my confidence grew, "she feels that I can do it. I will do it." And before I knew it, I signed my name to the application, and off it went swirling in the cold winds of Montana. You must remember that this is before cell phones and all communication and decisions would be carried by the U.S. Postal Service.  Words to be heard had to be specific, deliberate, and full of resolve.

"Thank you for your interest in our position with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana, Africa. You are selected and we look forward to your arrival." I was overwhelmed. 

Three weeks later, Denise, our son Keith, and I were packing for a journey that would change our lives forever.  The National Park Service placed me in a leave without pay status for 30 months, allowing me to help the Government of Botswana, and be guaranteed a job when I returned to the United States. I told myself, "How could I possibly pass up this opportunity."  We stored all of our belongings with a moving company in Billings, Montana, and our sparse luggage was minimal as we packed for Africa. 

Many years later, I would reflect on these moments and realize that is was one of the best decisions of my life. 

My good friend, Warnell Roberson would drive us from my parent's home in Barstow, California to the Ontario International Airport on a trip that we could not possibly imagine. We made a brief stop in Washington D.C. and met with Jim Sherburne of the Smithsonian Institute.

"The Peace Corps thanks you for your willingness to help the country of Botswana with their National Parks.Jim continues with his remarks. "You and your wife will be Peace Corps Volunteers en-route to Botswana. But once you land in Botswana, you, both will become United Nations Volunteers."  This sounds confusing and he makes me a bit uneasy when he adds, "We have never used this program before, you will be the first -- a National Park Service employee, Peace Corps Volunteer, United Nations Volunteer, all working for the government of Botswana, and oh yes, coordinated by the Smithsonian Institute."  He adds, "You'll be fine, we are here to support you for the next two years, you can count on that."

I believe what Jim had just said, but in reality, I barely knew where Botswana was and had never been to Washington D.C. before, let alone east of the Colorado River.  The taxi driver who drove us to our hotel that night was very direct. "If you're going to Africa as you say, then buy all the diapers you can for your baby. You may not find them in any stores in Africa." Ok, now I'm worried. What have I done?  Our son, Keith, is only 1 1/2 years old and I can not imagine his future in Africa. 

Denise and I cling onto each other as the jet plane roars down the runway over the Atlantic Ocean to a faraway place called Botswana, Africa. We could not turn back even if we wanted to.

Denise is 24 years old and I am 26 years old, and securely between us sits our son, Keith playing with a stuffed animal. Neither of us is confident in our decision as we squeeze each others-hand.

The flight to Johannesburg, Africa was very long. With a 1 1/2-year-old, it was difficult. "What are we doing here?" I asked myself over and over as I stare out into the darkness on this journey.  In the long hours of the night, things actually got better.  Keith was calm and playing with his stuffed animals. The flight from Johannesburg to Gaborone, Botswana was short by comparison. 

The landing was dusty on the small airstrip. The landscape was flat and the bright sun made my eyes squint. Then, I saw the Land Rover coming towards our plane, a whirl of dust behind it. His hands were waving even before the Land Rover stopped. 

"Welcome, my name is Wolfgang von Richter" he said almost out of breath.  "I'm with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and welcome to Botswana," as he grabbed out our sparse luggage and took us directly to the Presidents Hotel in downtown Gaborone. 

Gaborone is the nation's capital which has asphalt roads for twenty miles around it and then nothing but dirt and more dirt all the way to the wilderness of the Okavango Delta in the north, some 600 miles away.  

The hotel is directly in the middle of the local mall, full of people and their energy. The people are very friendly and speak English.  Only 48 hours earlier we had left our Crow friends who were also very friendly and spoke English.  An ocean is now between us.

Keith Griego and playmate Patrick ~  Gaborone, Botswana.

"You can stay here at the President Hotel until there is permanent housing available for you and your family," Wolfgang says with a warm smile. In retrospect, they did an outstanding job in welcoming us to Gaborone, Botswana. However, back then I was very worried. 

We stayed at the President Hotel for three weeks, then we moved on to the Holiday Inn before we moved into our home at 2753 Nkwe Close. It was a beautiful two-bedroom house with an empty garage. There was no landscape but that would soon change. Our neighbors welcomed us to their neighborhood and said that the name, Nkwe Close meant Tiger. The people here were friendly, helpful, and just like our Crow friends in Montana.

"Welcome. We hope you are settling into your home," Wolfgang said as he stopped by a few days later. He was very kind and truly made us feel like we were so welcomed. "UNDP tries to provide transportation but we can only offer you a motorcycle," and as his words faded, I perked up. He continued. "We have two motorcycles for you to select -  a Honda 250cc or a Yamaha 125cc."  I've owned Yamaha's my whole life and this was an easy decision - "I'll take the Yamaha," I said without any hesitation.

The Honda 250cc would go to another United Nations Volunteer who I would later meet. His name is Jerry Neville and is coming to Botswana from Australia. He would be stationed at Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. Later, he would allow me and Denise to ride his Honda 250cc for an adventure of a lifetime from Chobe National Park, Botswana to Victoria Falls, Zambia.  We would be lucky to return alive.

The Director, Department of Wildlife and National Parks, was Mr. E.T. Matenge.  Despite being a chain smoker, he made me feel so welcomed, valued. He loved his country, people, and its wildlife.  I like him very much.

Jerry Neville, Robert Griego, Shoe Minato ~~ Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa.

I rode my Yamaha 125cc daily to work. My official job title was Game Warden, Administration. We are part of an international team -- Jerry Neville from Australia, Shoe Minato from Japan, and a guy from India who never showed up. We were the new team and attended UNDP orientation in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. Our friendship would last a lifetime.

In a developing country, things work in a unique time and it is best to adapt. Jerry and Shoe were responsible for the infrastructure of the national parks campgrounds, and roads, and bridges. Those were major challenges in a developing country. I would help with the Administration of daily operations, and because the guy from India did not show up, I assumed his job as Finance Officer as well. Initially, I was lost. 

Thank goodness for the British.   

Anthony Ziegler was a senior game warden and provided the order that was necessary for any organization to survive and thrive. He helped me immensely.

Anthony's new 80cc Suzuki and my 125cc Yamaha ~ Gaborone Airport.

In America, Anthony would have been a senior park superintendent at crown jewels like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Everglades National Parks. 

He was the thread that held the Department together and exhibited amazing leadership qualities. Our Director, E.T. Matenge concurred. Anthony was from England and could easily be called an explorer working and living in remote places throughout Africa, like Uganda. 

He also was the Department's pilot, and later with a bit of insistence on my part, a motorcycle rider. "I need to take the Department's airplane for a test run, would you like to go?" Anthony asked. The aerial view of Gaborone and surrounding villages were amazing. I felt lucky to join him on this flight. I had never been flying in a small plane before. I felt like a 10-year old kid at Christmas.

He and his wife, Felicity, and their two children, Pip and Martin lived nearby. In the days ahead, we would go out on many family trips into the bush. The Zieglers' would become our good friends and now live in Burford, Oxfordshire, England. 

Later, we would meet Vic and Jane Simpson and their daughter Katie who was Keith's age and they too became good friends. Vic was a veterinarian in Botswana and their family now lives in Chacewater, Truro, Cornwall, England. Vic is an expert on birds.

We are fortunate to also meet three American couples serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Gaborone, Botswana. Mike and Karen Davis and Joe and Lynn Passineau are in their twenties and Ruth and Malcolm Smith are in their late sixties. The day after Malcolm retired as an airline pilot in California, they joined the Peace Corps. Together, we traveled into the bush to discover wild Africa. Their love for nature and wildness was there from the first day we met in Gaborone. They were real, hard-core Peace Corps Volunteers answering President John F. Kennedy's call to serve our country.

Years later, I would find a Peace Corps saying that I love:

Do people tell you, you're over the hill?
What if you were?
Over the hill, over a stream and over an ocean.
To another continent.
Thousands of miles from your own.
Where the process of improving the lives of others improves your own.
What if you're over the hill?
What's over the hill anyway?

Africa is wild.  Wildness is Africa, and despite the Tsetse fly that tried to kill us, we loved it.

In the days ahead, we would get lost in the bush, get stuck in the sands of the Kalahari Desert, camp among the lions and hyenas, and get charged by a bull elephant, all in pursuit of wildness.

Wildness was there directly in front of me; I touched it, I could smell it, I wrapped my arms around it, and I hoped to save it forever, and then some.

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