"Guys, get back in the car. I definitely see something."
Everybody got in and shut the doors with an urgency that frightened me even though I asked for it.
"Is it headed this way?"
"Not exactly. There are a couple of them, and they're kind of flanking us."
"Do you really think it's a cat?"
"I don't know. I could be making it up, but there's a slink to the way they move, so."
Back when I would visit Lindsay during my summer and winter breaks in college, she ate the following items: eggs, cheese, milk, bread, coffee, beer. Shes eat other things, occasionally, but as long as those basic items were in the apartment, she considered herself fully-stocked.
It was strange going halfway around the world, to visit Lindsay in Africa, and have it feel so familiar. Eggs. Cheese. Bread. With the addition of some peri-peri sauce and boxed wine. I've known Lindsay since before I can remember, and we've been best friends since about fifth grade. We'd talk a lot, growing up, about how we were going to travel and have adventures just as soon as we were out from under the yoke of our parents.
After high school, though, it started looking less probable. I went out of state for college, so Lindsay and I were apart. I realized that traveling took money that I didn't have and, with few job prospects after college, didn't look like I'd ever have. I got married; adding another person into the mix, with his own plans and obligations, seemed to put the lid on Lindsay's and my joint-adolescent dreams.
So when Lindsay got into the Peace Corps, it seemed important to go and visit her, in homage to my younger self if nothing else.
I didn't know there was real-life adventures to be had.
Lindsay serves in Palapye, Botswana and has been there for almost two years. When I got to her village, I was greeted by her brother, Jesse, and his girlfriend, Simone, who had been in Africa for four weeks, already, and were going to continue living/traveling with Lindsay for a couple of months. They had been on one game drive already that lasted several days in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. They saw lots of kudu and ostriches, and they even saw a recent cheetah kill, but their attempts to track down the fast cat were ultimately in vain.
Jesse and Simone were not complaining about their experience, but Lindsay wanted to make sure we got to see, for real, what Africa had to offer. To her, that meant we had to go to Savuti, her proclaimed favorite place on earth.
We hadn't made any actual plans or reservations prior to my arrival, so getting a campsite and being able to rent a car were on the far side of definite possibilities. Still we tried and figured, if nothing else, we'd at least head up to Kasane (population: 8,000), about eight hours to the north.
In Kasane, we checked into our campground, a compound surrounded by high electric fences. Kasane's a beautiful town on a sloping hillside facing down towards the blue-green Chobe river. It's civic issues include leopard attacks - at night, leopards leaping from the roofs of houses to attack residents and guests - and elephant tramplings as the herds make their way from the bush down to the river (hence our campground's electric fence.)
Elephant crossing signs abounded, but in our first few hours we had yet to see anything. We paid a taxi driver to take us up and down the road hoping to see elephants. We asked him if he liked elephants and he laughed at us. "Yes, I like elephants, but they are a nuisance. You have to be careful with elephants." Cape buffalo, on the other hand, he did not like because of their tendency to charge cars and their frequently inflicted damages on taxis.
The next day, having survived the night, we had no luck getting a rental truck - necessary in order to get up to Sivuti - we decided to stick around Kasane, take a boat tour, and try our luck the following day. The ground of our campsite was rock hard. Lindsay and I shared a tent she had gotten for $15. It was bright pink and blue, and when I laid down in it, my head touched one end and my feet the other. Its rain fly was the size of a handkerchief. All night I heard a strange whooping sound - oooOOOP, oooOOOP - which Lindsay later identified as hyenas.
On the boat tour, we spotted our first animals: elephants, hippos, crocodile, monkeys, monitor lizards, and impala. We drank boxed wine and met some scandinavians. We were relieved, considering our uneventful taxi ride the previous day, to have seen animals at all.
The next day, we had better luck with the rental car situation. They had a truck available for three days. The catch was that they needed a credit card, debit cards would not do, in order to make the rental. I fortunately had one because I was the only one who did in our group.
We decided that Jesse would drive; Lindsay, as a Peace Corps volunteer, was not allowed to drive, and Simone and I did not know how to drive stick. (I had been taught, several years ago, by John Guthridge. We spent a day doing circles around the block in Spokane in preparation for our upcoming move. I didn't end up driving the manual car during the move at all, preferring, instead, the gigantic automatic UHaul.)
When we got to the rental car place, Jesse and Lindsay went inside to take care of details. After a few minutes, they came outside to get me. "Whoever's credit card it is also needs to be the driver. It costs more to add extra drivers." So I walked in and sat down: "I will be the driver." I filled out all the paperwork, and when that was finished, one of the employees took us all out to get our truck. On the long walk to the parking lot, I was thinking I do not know how to drive stick and We'll see how this goes.
The truck was beautiful. A big white diesel Toyota with a full cab and one of those topper things covering the bed. The rental car guy showed me all around the truck and then admonished me, "Hop in." I got into the driver's seat - on the right-hand side of the car, mind you, because in Botswana they drive on the left. I looked at the three pedals and could not faintly recall which ones were which.
"Go ahead and turn the car on," he said.
I froze. Did I have to do something other than turn the key? Push a pedal?
Concerned, he then pointed the pedals out to me. "This is the clutch, brake, gas..."
"Ha ha!" I said. "I'm just not used to having the driver's side on the right."
"Turn on the car."
I pushed in the brake pedal and went to turn the key. Lindsay, from the passenger side, quickly tapped my left leg, and I put it on the clutch. I turned the key. Bingo: the car turned on.
"Okay, you're good to go."
"Thanks!" I said, and everybody jumped in. Thinking I might have passed the test and he might then go away, I sat there expectantly. He stood outside waiting. He wasn't going to go anywhere.
The parking lot was cramped. To get out, I'd have to reverse up a slight incline, and then maneuver my way around other cars and pedestrians. (I suppose like you'd do in a normal parking lot.) The area around the parking lot was under construction with construction workers nearby hard at work.
Jesse was in the passenger seat, and he started telling me what to do. "Push the clutch all the way in." He moved the stick into reverse. Now press the gas and ease up on the clutch. I did. The car lurched backwards and died. I put my hands on my face. "That's okay, turn it back on." I did and tried the whole thing again. The car lurched backwards a second time and died.
The rental car walked up to me and motioned for me to roll down my window. This is it, I thought. I rolled down my window and smiled. "You have to go this way to get out," he said, motioning to the parking lot exit. "Oh! Ha ha, I see. Thank you." He looked very concerned. I rolled my window back up. At this point, all the construction workers had stopped what they were doing and were looking at me.
"Okay, start the car, again." Jesse said.
I considered not doing anything, just sitting there for as long as it took for everyone to go away. I started the car again. Jesse put it in reverse. I eased off the clutch and pushed in the gas. This time I didn't kill it. I backed all the way up, the guy next to me moving so that I'd have more space.
"Okay, push in the clutch." I did while Jesse moved the stick into first. I made it all the way out of the parking lot, even having to stop for stop signs, and out onto the open road. I immediately drove on the wrong side. Fixed that quickly, though, and got passed by our rental car guy, me still proudly in the driver seat, working those pedals.
When we got to the Chobe park gate, Jesse offered to let me keep driving, but I declined.
We packed up the car for our trip to Sivuti. We filled water bottles. We went to the Spar (O! Beloved grocery store) and bought cheese, eggs, bread, instant coffee, beer, Nando's (peri-peri) sauce. We got peanut butter (Black Cat brand from South Africa), jelly, energy bars, something called "long-life milk" that didn't need to be refrigerated and a couple of steaks for me and Jesse (the non-vegetarians). One item on our list was a cheap or disposable cooler. Lindsay picked one up and later, when we opened its packaging, found out it was the size of a lunch box. It was almost big enough for the two steaks and some ice.
We took the five-ish hour drive outside and around Chobe National Park, two of those hours on a road that looked like this:
Savuti itself only consists of one lodge and two campgrounds. As we neared the park, we came across a lone elephant at a small watering hole not far off the road.
We stopped and took pictures of it. Amazing. It turned towards us - how exciting! - and started to flap its ears. "Is that what they do when they're about to charge?" Jesse asked as the elephant made a shriek that was hard to misinterpret. We got out of there.
Unlike at Kasane, our Savuti campground had no fences. We were the only people camping on the ground in tents; our neighbors all having special rigging where they can camp on the roofs of their vehicle. The compound with the bathrooms was set up like a fortress, with a walled perimeter reinforced with dirt. The trunks of the big trees at our campsite were wrapped with chicken wire so that leopards couldn't climb up into them.
We discovered, that with the heat of the truck motor combined with the African sun and the bumpiness of the road to Savuti, our food situation was a mess. The eggs were broken and dripping out the back of the truck. The peanut butter lid had come off, hot peanut butter pooling around our stuff. One of the steaks was very far gone, the lunch box not really having helped.
The beer was okay, though, and that night we got drunk. It helped with the sleeping, that and what we told ourselves about predators not being interested in tents as long as the tents were all the way zipped up. I heard hyenas again all night.
During the next couple of days, we saw everything on our game drives: zebra, elephants, an ostrich, giraffes, a leopard. It felt a lot like this:
The terrain varied from desert to marsh to forest to grassland all within a couple of kilometers. It was beautiful.
Early one morning, we rounded a bend to a hyena in the middle of the road. It looked straight at us. Not at the car as a unit, like the other animals, but at us,made eye contact. She came up to us; she rounded to the back. I think she smelled the rotting egg, meat, peanut butter combination that was leaking out of our truck bed.
What you think about hyenas - that they're little, mangy, skittish, goofy animals - is wrong. This hyena was beautiful, healthy, and larger than a full-grown rottweiler. And she didn't flinch until we gunned the truck back up and left.
We had some decisions to make. The car was due back at the rental place by one, the next day. We could stay another night in Savuti - although we couldn't get another night at the actual campground and would need to camp outside the gate - and then head back to Kasane early the next day. Or we could leave for Kasane that afternoon, turn in the car, and camp in Kasane that night.
We opted for the conservative choice and headed back to Kasane that afternoon. To make things interesting, and because we had time, we decided to take the road through the park. It was only a little bit longer, and we figured we could see more animals that way.
We headed out. We were flying over the sandy road, laughing (actually), and making up stories about the kingdom of elephants and zebras. (I was distinctly anti-elephant seeing that they destroyed the animal mall. Jesse insisted that they were not wreckers but job-creators.) Simone said she heard an elephant.
What? We slowed down. Then we all heard an elephant, that shrieking hard-to-misinterpret sound. We were surrounded by high scrub oak, so it was hard to see where the sound was coming from. Then we saw it. Four elephants to our left and three to our right - no, five to our left, or seven? And all of them pissed.
We sped through there, elephants shrieking on both side of us. We slowed back down when we got to a clearing. And from then on we crept through the park. It was tense as we kept wandering through groups of elephants that we didn't see until we were too close. I kept thinking of this:
"If you hold still, they can't see you," I said.
"No..." I was crestfallen. If Mitch were there, he would have gotten the reference.
After a couple of hours of driving, crawling through the bush, straining our eyes for elephants, stopping when we saw them, backing up, getting elephant yelled-at, the tension was too much, and Jesse had to stop for a smoke break. "This is not a motherfucking zoo," he proffered. We reconvened on the roof of the truck - too afraid to get out because of lions - and discussed what to do.
We hadn't paid attention to how far we had gotten, but Jesse guessed it wasn't nearly enough to get us the 190 Ks to Kasane. We didn't have a GPS or a satellite phone, the road was in terrible condition, and we hadn't seen any people all day. He suggested that we maybe turn around. We had crossed and pissed off hundreds of elephants by that point, and nobody was in a hurry to go back there.
"How about we keep going," I suggested. "We can go as far as we can before it gets dark. Then we can sleep in the truck and go the rest of the way in the morning" Everybody agreed. We had some food and enough water. And for how stressful the elephants were, I was enjoying myself and wanted to see more.
We kept going. After a couple of hours of not seeing any elephants, we eased up. We started joking again. We passed through high grass that exploded its seeds at us when we drove over it, causing an upward waterfall-effect of grain. The path had gotten more obscure and we had to switch from looking for elephants to focusing on the path so that we didn't venture off it.
We rounded a corner and came out, unexpectedly, into a clearing. It was a giant pan with odd, half-grown trees. In the center of it was a shallow lake with thirty elephants gathered around it and two enormous bulls playing, bathing themselves, stomping, and throwing water about. There was a herd of zebra, some cape buffalo, and a loan hippo bobbing in the water.
Even though we were nervous, we stopped the car to take it in. It was gorgeous. It was hard to believe that a place like that still existed on earth. Beautiful. Wild. And hours away from any humans (usually and, in this case, except for us). Then for the first time, we realized we had kind of lost the path.
The ground was covered in short grass and was marshy - no more of the sandy tracks we had followed earlier. We decided to check out a clearing in the trees on the far side. It checked out. We found some car tracks again.
We started hitting sections where the trail was gone completely. And we had to look carefully to pick it back up. The area was full of elephant paths, which were misleading, and the actual trail when we found it, was often just a slight discoloration in the grass, where it had been run over before. About an hour before dusk, we lost the trail completely.
We drove around looking for it, creating false trails as we did so. We got out on foot looking for it, wandering farther and farther from the car, stupidly, until somebody would call us back. We were going to have to turn around and go back.
We set up "camp" for the night, meaning we pulled off the road somewhere where we though elephants were least likely to trample us. The precariousness of our situation dawned on me. We were an estimated 65 kilometers from Savuti in the African bush. We had no way of contacting anyone; no one had driven on this road in at least a month. If anything happened to the car - if we wrecked it running away from elephants, if we wrecked it getting charged by elephants, if we just happened to get two flat tires - we were in trouble.
We came up with a worse-case scenario plan: wait. As much as I voted for hiking out, Lindsay said to wait. We could hunt Chobe chickens and filter water from the watering holes (where all the animals congregated, *sweats). If nothing else, Mitch would know that something was wrong when I missed my flight five days later.
Lindsay and I decided to make our application video for the Amazing Race:
We "slept" in the truck.
The next morning, spirits were pretty good. Lindsay made us coffee drink: instant coffee mixed with tepid water (the long-life milk we had been using not being long-enough-life) and sugar. We got going, the path even harder to see in the morning light, drove about 20 minutes, and came across a huge fallen tree baring our way. We had lost the path back, already.
We back tracked until we found a way that seemed more likely. We tied pieces of toilet paper to trees along the way to mark our path. We periodically stopped to scour the maybe-road for recent tire tracks. For the first hour and a half, things looked dicey.
Then we hit another fallen tree. This one, though, I swore I remembered from the previous day. We had gone off road and around it. I got out of the truck to see for sure. It looked like there could have been tracks routing around. I waived the truck over. We got to the other side, I looked at the dirt trying to distinguish the pattern of tires from the weave of shadows the grass was making. "I can't tell what I'm looking at." Jesse pointed farther down the road: definite tire tracks. We got back in the car.
We made it out of there. We were much better at not pissing off the elephants, only running into one tricky spot where a herd was all over the road in front of us. We backed a ways off and waited. I stood on the window sill of the truck, keeping an eye on them. Everybody else took the opportunity to walk around a little.
Back behind us, I saw something move. It was hard to see, low to the ground, beige. Sometimes I couldn't see anything at all. Then I'd see it slink across the space between two bushes. Lions.
Okay, those could definitely be lions.
I told everybody to get back in the car, and we decided to take our chances with the elephants who, it turns out, had moved safely off the road.
Since we definitely didn't make it back to the car rental by one. We called the office as soon as we got to the nearest tuck shop outside of Savuti. To my relief, the car rental place seemed cool with it. We'd have to pay for an extra day in addition to a fine, but they didn't think we had stolen the truck or anything.
We had busted off a side mirror in the process of being lost in the bush, and when I drove the car back to the lot, Lindsay moving the stick this time instead of Jesse, they didn't look at bit surprised at not seeing the vehicle perfectly in tact.
"You are the people who got lost in the bush?" they asked.
Yes. Yes, that's us.