Thursday, December 20, 2018

~ Wild Botswana ~

"All good things are wild and free" ~  Henry David Thoreau.   


Photo by Denise Griego.

I never expected in my lifetime to return for the third time.  Forty-three years ago, I was in Botswana, Africa.  Destiny does have a say in life.

“Would you go back to Botswana with me?  I want to go there, but not by myself.  It will be my 40th birthday and that’s what I really, really want to do.”  Her words came at me in rapid-fire, offering little time for me to respond in any way other than, “Yes.”  It's hard to say no to your daughter.

Botswana again.  My mind races with delight.  Soon, we began to plan for this adventure back in time.  I say that because once you are in wild Botswana, time slows down, crawls, and yet moments are crystal clear.

Honestly, I don't know if it's today, yesterday, or if I'm dreaming.  Photo by Denise Griego.

I think about that first trip to Botswana years ago.  I was maybe 25 or 26 years.  As our airplane landed on the small air-strip in Gaborone, I thought “What have I done. I’ve brought my wife and 1 ½-year-old son here to Africa.”  Despite my initial fears, we would live here for two years, make long-lasting friends, and fall in love with Botswana.  [see Wild Botswana, part 1 and Wild Botswana, part II].

I worked for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks while taking a leave of absence from the National Park Service.  Our international team came here to help Botswana with the development and protection of its national parks, pristine lands, and precious life in the Okavango Delta.  The rains falling months earlier in Angola reach the thirsty Okavango Delta.  It is said that the Okavango Delta can be seen from space.  My own view of a bush plane was incredible.

We would live in Gaborone, the nation’s capital but we made frequent trips into the “bush.”  Then, the pavement ended just twenty miles outside of the city limits.  The dirt roads were sandy and full of “wash-boards.”  I remember on one of our outings, just 30 miles outside of the city limits, the Land Rover that I was driving straddled a cobra on the track.  In my rearview mirror, I could see its head swaying back-and-forth, three feet off the ground, and while unhurt, it was clearly agitated.


View of the Okavango Delta from our bush plane.

Years ago, we traveled over 600 miles from Gaborone into the bush of northern Botswana.  It took weeks.  We carried camping supplies, water, and six five-gallon drums of petrol on top of our Land Rover.  It was an adventure full of danger, yet I never felt afraid.  I remember getting stuck in a 5-ton Bedford under the hot sun in the Kalahari Desert, chased by baboons on a picnic with Denise and Keith narrowly escaped a charging hippo at Savute Channel and outrunning a bull elephant on a motorcycle on a trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

That’s what I’m thinking as I pack, and more importantly how our daughter Lori, will see Botswana.  It will be her 40th birthday and this trip will be memorable.  I know that she will love it.  I plan to watch her watching wildness. 

Me, I'm thinking about the Okavango Delta and the life it brings.  In 1975, there were about 17,000 elephants in Botswana.  Today, I’m told that there are about 140,000 elephants.  I love these massive animals and how quietly they walk, how they play in the river, and the compassion they display for each other.

In the back of my mind, however, is the vivid image of that bull elephant that charged Denise and me on a Honda 250cc motorcycle. We narrowly escaped with our lives. Our 1 1/2-year-old son stayed behind in Kasane with our good friend Jerry Neville, a UN Volunteer from Australia.  You never really forget an incident like that.  It's ingrained in memory.  All wildlife deserves respect and admiration.  Thank goodness, we were young when that bull elephant charged.  If it had turned bad, our son Keith would have been raised by Jerry.  No doubt.  He was a kind man and helped Chobe National Park grow.

This trip, however, is not on a motorcycle.  Relax I tell myself.  To see Botswana through the eyes of our daughter is the moment.  We would be part of an organized group operated by Road Scholar.  We would soon meet our leader and the others in Johannesburg, South Africa.  In the morning, we board a plane to begin an epic adventure into wild Botswana.

We met as strangers, we left as friends.  The magic begins.

Our group, Chobe National Park.

Lori wanted a picture of hugging a tree.
This massive Baobab worked.  Picture by Sally Galvan.

Elephants on the Chobe River, the magic begins.

Elephants are so protective of the young.  Photo by Denise Griego.

I need to end with meaningful words. Yesterday as I began to write this story, Lori posted on Instagram a picture of elephants playing in the Chobe River.  Her words touched us.  She captured her feelings about Botswana, and as parents, those words brought us to tears:

"Take me back.  Let me stare into an elephants’ eyes and feel it’s soul.  Let me laugh with the baboons and admire the zebras.  Let me be in awe of the giraffes and hold my breath watching the lions.  Take me back, a piece of my heart is in Botswana."                                                                                                                                      Lori Jimenez

Lori, you have often said that it's the journey and the moments in life that count. Your wish was to travel to Botswana for your 40th birthday. You did it. Relish those moments. They will be with you forever.

Even a dragonfly relishes the water of the Okavango Delta. Photo by Denise Griego.

Those eyes looked right through us. Photo by Denise Griego.

We were here 43 years ago - Gubatsa Hills, ancient San rock paintings.
That image, taken 43 years ago, is on my cell phone.  Our son, Keith was 2 years old at the time.

Now, our family has seen these rock paintings.

Beautiful mom and daughter.

Dad and beautiful daughter.

Bob, Lori, Denise -  Savute Channel. Photo by Sally Galvan.

Lori, Chobe Game Lodge.

Celebrating Lori's 40th birthday with a homemade cake
at Leroo La Tau Lodge along the Boteti River in Botswana. 

 ~ Dreams do come true ~

When I asked what are you looking at? she replied "Africa."

The magic remains -  I see it, I feel it, I smell it. Will I ever return?
As our group leader, Keith said, "Never say never."

Monday, December 3, 2018

~ The Nation's Christmas Tree ~

The article The Nation's Christmas Tree" by Robert Griego was originally published on the "RoadRUNNER Touring & Travel" magazine website on 12/06/2017.

Reflecting back on my last National Park Service assignment, Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park were managed as one giant park with a huge Sierra heart.  After all, these parks have two of the largest living trees in the world.  The largest sequoia tree resides in Sequoia National Park and that is special.  However, Kings Canyon National Park has the honor of having the Nation’s Christmas Tree and that is where this story begins.  I don’t have a current picture of the General Grant Tree, so that is my rationale for this impromptu motorcycle trip.
The weather is mild so I decide to ride my motorcycle from Three Rivers (elevation 900 feet) to Grant Grove (elevation 6,300 feet) in Kings Canyon National Park.  The weather in the Sierra Nevada range can change abruptly so this mild weather is my opportunity to visit this iconic sequoia tree to celebrate, a bit early, our Nation’s Shrine.
The General Grant Tree, in Kings Canyon National Park, was dedicated in April 1926 as the National Christmas Tree.  The General Grant Tree was made a national shrine to honor the nation’s fallen military.  National Park Service officials, the Sanger Chamber of Commerce, and the Fresno International Guard 144 Fighter wing will place a wreath at the base of the massive tree on December 10.
The Nation’s Christmas Tree was named after Ulysses S. Grant in 1867.  The General Grant Tree reaches upward to 267 feet tall and is nearly 29 feet in diameter.  This giant sequoia is second in size only to the General Sherman Tree which is located in Sequoia National Park and is the world’s largest tree, measured by volume.  The General Sherman Tree stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base.  These giant sequoias were here some 2,000 years ago.
In April 1925, President Calvin Coolidge designated the General Grant Tree as the Nation’s Christmas Tree for all to enjoy.  In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the tree a memorial, calling it a “National Shrine” to the men and women of the armed forces who served, fought and gave their lives for our freedom.

Park officials have said that entrance fees to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will be free to those wishing to experience the celebration.  Find your park online, or for suggestions, check out my series “In Pursuit of Wildness,” about exploring America’s national parks.
My trip home can only be described as “ice cold” as a wet fog covers the top of the big trees along the Generals Highway at about 7,600 feet with patches of snow.  When I arrive home well after dark, my wife has a cozy fire burning in the fireplace and simply asks, “Did you get your picture?”

Text and photography: Robert Griego