This summer our whole family, thirteen of us, had the remarkable good fortune to travel with John Stevens for thirteen days to four different camps in Botswana and to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Our group ranged in age from the eighty-one-year-old patriarch, Mark Levy, sometimes a little unsteady on his feet but winner of the good-camper-and-good-sport-of-the-year award, to the youngest grandchild, ten-year-old Abigail, whose biggest challenge was sitting still in a Land Rover when she would really rather be swinging from the branches with the baboons. John Stevens met the challenges of shepherding this enthusiastic but unruly group with his famous grace, good humor, wisdom, wit, and vast stores of knowledge.
John met us at the airport in Victoria Falls, immediately taking charge of finding our daughter's lost bag, which never made it onto the connecting flight out of Johannesburg. (Thanks to John's perseverance, the bag appeared two days later.) While our family of four waited for the others to arrive on a separate flight, John entertained us with stories as we sat under a tree outside the airport. We then shared a lunch of sadza and Zambezi beer at the airport restaurant with John and two of his friends who worked in the airport.
Once we had all arrived, we drove into Botswana to the Chobe Chilwero Lodge in Chobe National Park. Along this drive John began to turn us into avid birders and pointed out the first of scores of species we would come to know and love-ground hornbills, guinea hens, blacksmith lapwings, fork-tailed drongos, and the always startling lilac-breasted roller, to name just a few. At 3:30 that afternoon, not long into our drive, we spotted our first family of elephants, a sight we never got tired of seeing.
Chobe Chilwero Lodge is a great place to begin the experience of the African bush. It offers a slow and nearly effortless transition away from civilization in comfortable tents where roughing it means turning on your own electric blanket. It is a place, like most, that you share peacefully with the elephants, hippos, buffalos, baboons, and crocodiles.
John Stevens and twelve-year-old Nat
Chobe Chilewero Lodge
Elephants in the river, Chobe National Park
Our next camp, Duma Tau, was in the Linyanti Wildlife Preserve, a spectacular expanse of flood plain, grassland, and scrubland. Though this is true of all the camps, the guides and staff at Duma Tau were extraordinary in their passion for and commitment to studying and protecting the area. On one early morning drive, bundled up with long underwear, hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, ponchos, and hot water bottles, we tracked a mother leopard with her nine-month-old cub. After racing to the site where they'd been spotted, driving off road and over the scrubby landscape, we watch and follow the pair as they walk slowly along, unbothered by our presence. We had our lunch that day at a hide above the Dish Pan, a waterhole that attracts hordes of animals, who line up to drink in groups, first the elephants, several herds at once, then zebras and wildebeest, then giraffes, small groups of warthogs darting in and out among them. Other than a small bit of posturing and trumpeting by bull elephants, the procession is orderly and untroubled.
Flying to Duma Tau
Thompson, our guide, showing pods from a sausage tree
Leopard and her cub
Elephants, zebra, and warthogs sharing a drink at Dish Pan
Watching lions in the late afternoon
Elephants visiting the camp at Duma Tau
A hippo in camp
Jack's Camp on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in the Kalahari Desert was as unexpected and surreal a place as I've ever been. The camp itself is a wonderful Victorian curiosity, clearly the vision of one committed man, Ralph Bousefield, who was away the days we were there. The food is delicious and ambitious-the cooks prepare eggs benedict to order for breakfast, for example. The tents are luxurious, full of teak furniture and oriental carpets. The landscape is dry as a bone, dusty, and vast, and probably as empty as any place on earth. We rode quad bikes onto the Salt Pans, and were the only fifteen people (us, John, and Super, our guide) in an area the size of Switzerland. The night sky is as black and brilliant-and cold--as any you have seen.
Jack's Camp is a place for experiencing things you won't see elsewhere. Super, our guide, took us to a baobab tree that all of us together could not get our arms even halfway around. We followed a colony of meerkats heading home for the evening, walking along with them as they stopped to stand up and look for predators (apparently discounting us). Upon reaching their destination, a warren of underground tunnels, they stood and absorbed as much of the last rays of winter sunlight as they could before descending underground for the night.
The next morning, before our departure, we walked with a Bushman, who showed us his bow and arrows and other tools, and how to light a fire and make a pipe to smoke powdered rabbit dung.
A tent at Jack's Camp
Quad bikes on the Salt Pans
The baobab tree
Nat and the meerkats
John Stephens and Super
Bushman playing his bow as a musical instrument
Our final camp, Kwara, provided a welcome contrast to the harshness of the Kalahari. We were all happy to see the golden grasses and blue water, the trees and animals of the Okavanga Delta. We missed the elephants and enjoyed being back among them, marveling at how they move silently and even almost invisibly along, despite their size. Sometimes the only sound you hear from a herd running to the water to drink is a slight rustling of the grass. Other times one elephant is crashing through the trees outside your tent at night, maybe just to let you know he's there. In the Delta John is in his element telling us about the birds, pointing out the wattled cranes walking elegantly through the marshes, or the saddle-billed storks or the astonishingly huge secretary bird.
Late afternoon boat ride in the Delta
Hippo at sunset
Giraffes and zebras
Elephant at Kwara
Our last stop was at the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel, a beautiful but slightly tarnished relic of the British Empire. The staff soldiers on gamely despite occasional power losses. Townspeople are still selling their wares to tourists in the market despite the near-total collapse of the economy. No one knows what Zimbabwean money is worth, and much bartering takes places. It is an economy where one can buy something for a pen and quite a lot for a pair of sneakers. Despite hardships and shortages, though, the mood seems patient and ultimately optimistic that things will improve. In that spirit John and Nicci say they would live nowhere else.
The Victoria Falls Hotel
Getting wet at Victoria Falls
John, Nicci and Sarah
Images: © Copyright 2007 - Richard Levy - All rights reserved.