Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
An old and dear friend, wishing us well on our travels, told my wife and me, “You’re remarkable.” I knew what she really meant. Our rabbi told members of his congregation of our plans and they nodded as he blessed our trip. We understood why.
They were indulgent, but they thought we were crazy to be planning such a trip at our age and wondered if we’d survive. My wife, Evelyn, told me, “Well what age should we go? If not now, when?”
So we went this summer on a two-week African safari to celebrate our 80th year, among other things, in a place like nowhere else on earth, the vast Okavango Delta of Botswana. So instead of my customary “reflections,” this is a loving travelogue about a magical place, why we went and with whom, for we acknowledge that we are not foolhardy (else we would not have made it to 80) and could not have done this alone.
I may have mentioned that I’ve spent considerable time in South Africa as a reporter. My wife and lived there and traveled the region for five months in 1996-7 when I was teaching young journalists in South Africa how to pursue their craft in the freedom of their new democracy. And when we could, we spent days in the bush with the amazing animals and birds that inhabit this continent.
Much of the bush is flat, sandy, dry and dotted with brush, the thorny acacia, and umbrella trees that don’t grow high. There are no forests and certainly no lush, jungles (indeed, a lion couldn’t survive in a jungle.
But drive through this rather ordinary land and suddenly it’s alive with a couple of grazing giraffes raising their heads, a herd of elephants at a water hole, a dozen zebras, hundreds of the graceful and delicate impala, the most common of the antelope, chattering troops of baboons, wildebeest crossing the road, hippos in the rivers, water buffalo and, if you’re lucky, a lion and a solitary leopard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
During the months we lived in Johannesburg, we had neither the time nor the money to visit the special place called the Okavango in Botswana, one of Africa’s most prosperous and best-run democracies, just north of South Africa. A former British protectorate, you may know of Botwana now as the home (in the capital, Gabarone) of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The books, incidentally, will give you a good idea of the grace and charm of the people of Botswana, and their veneration of those of us who have achieved age.
Botwana is rich because of its diamonds, but also because the Okavango has become a great attraction for travelers from all over the world. It is the only place where the rivers, full from the rains and flowing from the west do not empty into the sea. Rather, they simply stop and flood the great Kalahari desert forming a vast delta of islands, lagoons and clear water swamps. And during a few months of Botswana’s winter, southern Africa’s animals come to the waters and grasses and reeds to drink, hunt and mate.
In too many private game reserves in Africa, the animals are accustomed to coming at certain times to the viewing places, where sight-seers can have a drink and take their photos. The Okavango, on the contrary, is a place to be with these creatures where they live on their terms. And it’s a birder’s paradise, starting with the lovely national bird, the lilac-breasted roller and the huge red-headed crowned hornbill.
When Evelyn and I were younger we would have camped out in tents in relatively safe camp areas, close to the animals. That was out of the question this time. Indeed, a South African journalist friend, who knows about my partly paralyzed right side, warned us that even luxury camping would be too rigorous for just the two of us.
But one day last year, while I was going on about my hope to see the delta, a son-in-law suggested he and my younger daughter could go with us to help. By and by, another daughter and her husband joined us. Eventually we numbered eight including two grandchildren, 17 and 20. And I took charge of the planning.
It was a good thing that it took a year to put the trip together for it made paying easier. And truly, aside from the transatlantic air fares, the costs of the camps were reasonable and it included light planes to take us to each of the three bush camps we chose.
Unless you can camp out in your own tents, the best way to visit the delta is to stay for a couple of days at each of the various camps, to explore the different features of the delta’s terrain, the waters, the Kalahari, the animals and the birds.
With the help of a South African friend in the travel business, and for our sake and the comfort of our family, we chose the services of Desert & Delta, which has been doing business in Botswana since 1982 and owns and runs some of the best camps in the delta. We chose three, Moremi and Savute, within the country’s vast national parks, and Shinde in a private reserve. Each of the three was unique and all were tastefully tucked into the environment, without disturbing trees, animals or birds.
The routine for seeing the animals and birds is the same at every camp I’ve visited - up at 6AM for a cup of coffee or tea, then a four hour game drive atop a high Toyota Land Cruiser that can negotiate three or four feet of water, if necessary. Then lunch and siesta, high tea at 3PM and at 3:30 until dark, an evening game drive.
I worried on the first drive out of Moremi that the family might not see the sights I’ve seen. I needn’t have been concerned. First the impala (there are more of them, two million, than there are people in Botswana), stately giraffe (did you know they must spread their legs so they can get a drink?), baboons, warthogs (so ugly, they’re cute), then a sight that left everyone gaping - a pride of six or eight lions, running towards us in the shallow water, brushing past our vehicle heading for dry land and the tall grass where they like to hide.
The following morning we came on a leopard lounging on a dead tree limb just outside camp and four young lions reuniting with their mothers who had been out hunting. And on the afternoon-evening drive, called a sundowner, our Botswana guide/tracker/driver, Mod, promised us elephants and we found them, moving through the tall grass like mountains.
The sundowners end with drinks – soft or hard - and watching the sun disappear on the far horizon of the land so distant, I swear you can almost see the curvature of the earth.
At Savute, I took a shower on a warm afternoon and watched a dozen or so elephants drinking and washing in the pool a few yards away. They had chased away a herd of wildebeast but allowed impala and other antelope to share the waters.
That morning, Evelyn and I slept in but the six others had their eyes filled with animals and birds. They watched a leopard that had just hung her kill – an impala – in a tree for safe keeping. Her cub was hidden nearby. On the sun downer, we watched while a male lion tried to get it on with his mate–about four times in the hour.
And on the last night at Shinde, which is surrounded by water and the guide can go off-road because it’s in a private reserve, we watched silently a hungry female leopard as she stalked a reedbuck, one of the many varieties of antelope. The full moon came up early, to light the scene. A large striped antelope called a kudu, too large for the leopard, watched out for the reedbuck. And two elephants lumbered unhurriedly in the distance.
That night an elephant awakened my daughters and came within a few feet of their tents to shake the fruit from a date palm. And a staff member reported that a hippo, one of the most dangerous animals, wandered through the camp. Animals do not fear the vehicles, but if you should be foolish enough to get out, the animals will either run or charge.
Did I mention that the meals - breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner - were outstanding - four or five star - with fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance along with roast kudu at one meal?
And because, as I said, age is venerated, Evelyn and I were treated as celebrities, with a great deal of deference, at each camp with staff and guides (who outnumbered the 22-24 guests) helping us over the rough spots. It’s difficult to walk with a cane and a gimpy leg over a path strewn with fresh elephant dung. It had a strangely pleasant, but pungent odor and disclosed the elephant’s vegetarian diet. Did you know that except for the cats and other predators, all the animals are vegans?
On the last day at Shinde, at the end of the safari, there was a surprise. Evelyn and I were taken by boat through the waters flanked by tall reeds and grasses to an island in the delta where, in honor of our 80th year - and other family observances - the staff had set up a formal lunch among the trees with napkins, silver, china and wine for us and the rest of the guests. Our age, it turned out, had its privileges.
We stopped for our sundowner at a great, gnarled boabab tree that may have been 1,000 years old. On the way back to camp, we stayed out after dark because the guide was searching for a lion whose roar he heard. But we only saw, in the guide’s spotlight, a group of wildebeest and warthogs huddled for safety, and a hyena.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: The Recital.