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Subject: Kara's Shangri-la
Date: Wednesday, October 30, 1996
From: email@example.com (David Cohen)
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
If Istanbul was cheap, funky, and romantic, then Zurich, Switzerland, was its cosmic opposite. We came to Zurich to catch a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, and as long as we were there, we decided to stay a few days and see a bit of Switzerland (or "Switcher Land," as Willie calls it).
We began to question the wisdom of that decision shortly after we landed. Devi, who speaks near-native Japanese, struck up a conversation with some friendly JAL flight attendants on the airport shuttle bus, and all they could do was complain how expensive Zurich was.
"Where do you live?" Devi asked in Japanese.
"Tokyo," replied one of the flight attendants.
"And you find Zurich expensive compared to Tokyo?"
"Oh, yes, much more costly."
Since Tokyo was the most expensive city we'd ever been to, we naturally began to worry. These fears were well founded, because the prices in Zurich were simply breathtaking. A T-shirt in the hotel gift shop ran $45. A ten-minute train ride into town cost the family more than fifty bucks, and a McDonald's Happy Meal was more than $9. In short, everything in Zurich was three times as expensive as America and about five times as much as Turkey.
This compelled us to adopt some drastic cost-cutting measures -- one of which backfired badly. After spending more than a hundred dollars for a run-of-the-mill pizza dinner, we decided to prepare some of our meals in the hotel room -- like Devi's mom did during her round-the-world trip thirty years agockage of ravioli and she was standing right behind me.
"Thank you again," I said, and before that sentence was out of my mouth, the cashier snatched the bag and dragged it over the scanner.
"You really are an idiot," Devi said, as we walked out of the supermarket.
"Don't worry," I vowed. "We're going to eat that ravioli if it's the last thing we do."
Back in the room, I made several feebleminded attempts to boil water that included, among other things, mounting a hotel water glass on top of our travel iron. Needless to say, that didn't work. So the next day I tried to give the ravioli to one of the hotel porters as a tip.
"It's excellent ravioli," I said. "It cost more than ten Swiss francs." The porter just said, "Nein, danke," and looked at me as if I were trying to poison him.
The chicken ravioli became an albatross around my neck the whole three days we were in Zurich. Even on the way to the airport, I made one last-ditch attempt to foist it off on our Indian shuttle bus driver -- who was probably a vegetarian, anyway.
"No, I am very sorry," he said, "but I cannot accept this gift."
"Oh, go ahead," I said. "It's great ravioli, and I can't take it with me on the airplane."
He shook his head vigorously, then studiously kept his eyes on the road.
As we got out of the bus, Devi said, "Please do me a favor. Don't try to give that ravioli to anyone at the airport."
At that point, I knew the jig was up, and I dumped the bag into a trash bin.
If that story seems like an odd way to sum up three days in Zurich, let me just add the following: Zurich is a lovely, prosperous city of stately buildings and meticulous streets set on a picturesque Alpine lake. It is surrounded by t idy farms, emerald-green meadows, and snow-capped mountain peaks. The trains run on time. The museums are impressive, and everything else generally seems to function perfectly. If you happen to have excess funds, I'm sure you'd enjoy shopping for Fabergé eggs, Mont Blanc pens, and other fabulously expensive gewgaws in the posh Bahnhofstrasse shops. And you can certainly get a superb meal here for the price of a used car. Still, it's easy to see why Lenin, while living in Zurich, dedicated his life to toppling the capitalist system. And I have to say that this is the only city in the world where we were cheered to see graffiti. If your family is on any kind of budget whatsoever -- or if you prefer vacationing someplace that isn't defined by money and decorum -- you might want to give Zurich a pass. Believe me, no one here will miss you.
When we boarded the plane in Switzerland, it was cold and gray with a light dusting of snow on the ground. Eleven hours later we disembarked in Johannesburg, South Africa, where we were greeted by a glorious spring day. The skies were an electric blue; the air was fresh and warm; and the streets were lined with jacaranda trees ablaze in a riot of orange and purple. Our brains were addled by the long, brutally crowded flight and the radical change of climate, but nothing could quell our excitement. We were finally in Africa -- the segment of the trip that everyone in the family looked forward to the most.
We stayed overnight in a Johannesburg suburb, then headed straight back to the airport for a short flight north to Victoria Falls. We were met at Victoria Falls Airport by a compact, reserved young woman in khaki named Susan. Susan was a white Zimbabwean whose family has lived here for generations. Devi had phoned ahead and hired Susan to take us a hundred kilometers across the Botswana border to Chobe National Park, reputedly the best place on earth to watch elephants.
Susan's vehicle was an enormous four-wheel-drive Land Rover, so I figured the drive from Vic Falls to Botswana might be pretty rough. But the road turned out to be a smooth strip of tarmac that cut through the flat dusty bush of western Zimbabwe like a black ribbon. It was burning hot as we barreled down the road, and I was astonished how desiccated everything looked. I knew October was the end of the dry season, but the foliage -- what little there was of it -- seemed dead, and nearly every tree had either been charred black by fire or completely reduced to white ash.
"Is it normally this...burnt?" I asked Susan.
"Yes, it's usually pretty well parched by October," she said in a quiet Rhodesian accent. "But in the last few years, it's been a lot worse than usual. All of Southern Africa's been hit by a drought, and this particular area has suffered several major bush fires."
As Susan described the water shortage, Kara suddenly shrieked -- as only a nine-year-old girl can. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!"
"What is it?" I asked with alarm.
But Kara couldn't talk, only point.
I pivoted around to see what she was pointing at and spotted an eighteen-foot giraffe loping gracefully down the shoulder of the road.
"Did you see that?" Kara cried breathlessly. "It was just running around free."
"I did, honey. It was wonderful."
"I'm going to like Africa a lot," Kara said, and her face was lit with wonder.
Shortly after the giraffe sighting, we pulled up to a small cin der block shack with a blue and white flag that housed the Botswana border control. If you think the Turkish border guards were baffled by Betty's Guatemalan passport, you should have seen the Batswana.
"I've been at this post for five years," observed the inspector, "and I have never seen anything like this. Where in blazes is Guatemala?"
Betty was slightly offended by that remark, but I pointed out to her that the passport inspectors in Guatemala probably didn't know where Botswana was either.
"I know," she said, "but Guatemala is an important country."
Anyway, when it looked as if we might be headed toward another sticky visa predicament, Susan motioned the rest of us to step outside and discreetly intervened. Five minutes later she emerged from the shack with all our visas in order.
"Any trouble?" I asked.
"A little," she replied, "but we have a good arrangement with these fellows."
"Do you have to pay them or something?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. They just don't have any place to get lunch around here," she said, sweeping her hand across the wide panorama of desolate bush, "so we bring them a loaf of bread from time to time."
"I'm glad we didn't try to do this without you," I said.
"No, your friend would have probably been turned back."
Once we crossed the border, we detoured a few miles off the main road and drove our vehicle through what looked like a long, shallow concrete mud puddle.
"I'm afraid you'll all have to get out and walk through this," said Susan. The kids thought that was a wonderful idea and immediately splashed in.
"What is this stuff?" asked Devi.
"Oh, the water is supposed to contain chemicals that kill any hoof-and-mouth disease you might carry in from Zimbabwe on your shoes or on the tires of the vehicle."
"You mean this is full of chemicals?" Devi asked, as she watched the kids cavorting in the brown soup.
"Ostensibly. But I wouldn't worry too much," replied Susan. "It's unlikely that anyone's actually put the chemicals in."
After that, we skirted the border town of Kasane and eventually came to a small turnoff marked "Chobe Game Lodge." At this point, Susan shifted into low gear and said, "You better hang on. This may be a little rough."
Now I understood why we needed the big Land Rover. The road to the lodge was little more than a sandy track, and the vehicle fishtailed back and forth in the soft dry earth. When we were about a mile up the path, Kara yelled, "Elephant! Elephant!" and we all turned to see a young male stripping leaves from a tree.
"Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?" asked Devi.
"Not at all," said Susan. "I'll just find some solid ground." She pulled the Land Rover forward and switched off the engine.
"He's so beautiful," Kara said, watching the young elephant intently.
"Everyone be very quiet," Devi said to the kids. "We don't want to scare him off."
"I wouldn't worry about that," said Susan. "That young fellow weighs around four thousand kilos, and he isn't the least bit afraid of us."
Susan then directed our attention to the other side of the car where there was a break in the bush. Through the gap, we could see the broad floodplain of the Chobe River, which forms the border between Botswana and Namibia's Caprivi Strip. The river was at its lowest level of the year, and its wide grassy banks were teeming with wildlife. There were herds of sleek black waterbuck and muscular kudu, several her ds of elephant -- many with young calves -- and a pod of rotund hippos grazing at the water's edge.
Up until that point I thought that an African wildlife safari involved driving around in the bush all day trying to spot a few stray animals. And apparently it can be like that during the wet season when the bush leafs out. But in October, the water holes were dry, the foliage was almost completely gone, and every beast within two hundred miles was gathered by the banks of the Chobe, the only perennial water source in these parts. This meant, among other things, that thirty thousand elephants -- one out of every twenty in Africa -- were rummaging around in the immediate neighborhood.
"Look at that," I said, gazing out over the Chobe floodplain. "There must be seven or eight different species down there."
"I know," Kara said, almost reverently. "This is the best place you ever took us."
By the time we got to the lodge, the children were in a frenetic state. They wanted to get out and see the animals, and they didn't want to waste one extra minute loitering in the room. While it did our hearts good to see the kids so enthusiastic, we had to tell them that we couldn't go game watching in the middle of the day.
"Why not?" asked Kara indignantly. "There are animals all over the place."
"I'm sorry," Devi replied. "But it's more than 100 degrees outside. You're not used to the heat yet, and you can get sunburned or heatstroke. Besides, according to the guidebook, a lot of the animals, like lions and hyenas, are either nocturnal or crepuscular."
"Crep...what?" asked Willie.
"Crepuscular. It means they're only active at dawn and dusk -- so we'll see a lot more species once it cools down a b it."
The kids were naturally disappointed but they found it easier to be patient once they found out that the animals would come in to see them. Apparently, the only thing they had in the way of a fence around the lodge was a low barrier along the river that was supposed to keep crocs out. Otherwise, the bountiful African wildlife had free access to the grounds. We soon got used to seeing the vervet monkeys and baboons cavorting on the lawn outside our room. But the kids were slightly taken aback when they stumbled across a mother warthog and her baby rooting around next to the pool. And you should have seen their faces when a fifteen-foot elephant crashed out of the bush and strolled casually down a hotel path.
"Do you think this place is safe?" Devi asked when the elephant passed.
"I don't know," I replied. "It's sort of like letting the kids play inside the enclosures at the zoo."
"Maybe they shouldn't go outside without an adult."
I agreed, and after a big baboon leapt from the roof of the hotel and landed directly behind them, Kara and Willie did, too.
When four o'clock rolled around, the kids were waiting by the door with their hats on and their cameras ready. We trooped to the front door of the lodge, where we met a thin, muscular Motswana game ranger named Steve. A quiet friendly fellow of about thirty, Steve was our game guide for the day. As we pulled away in an open four-wheel-drive vehicle, Willie asked him if we would see a lot of elephants.
"I promise you," Steve said in a thick African accent, "you'll see more ellies today than you have ever seen in your life."
That was no exaggeration. While elephants may be an endangered species in other parts of Africa, there wa s clearly a population explosion in northeastern Botswana. The minute we pulled onto the track alongside the Chobe River, we saw herd after herd of the lumbering beasts. There were breeding herds of mothers and babies, bachelor herds of adolescent males, and old rogue bulls roaming around by themselves. There were so many elephants, in fact, that they'd thoroughly ravaged the landscape, stripping bushes of whatever little greenery they had and toppling large trees just so they could reach the leaves at the top. The entire area looked like some sort of combat zone.
"They sure do a lot of damage," commented Devi.
"Oh, yes," replied Steve. "The farmers across the river in Namibia hate these beasts. They rip down fences and eat their crops. And if a farmer is foolish enough to leave some sugarcane or a bag of oranges on the seat of his car, the ellies roll the car over and over until the windows break. Then they fish out the bag with their trunks."
"You're kidding!" Devi said.
"Not at all. They can be very aggressive."
Not to mention stubborn. We soon learned that there's no way to move an African elephant that doesn't care to be moved. Several times during the drive, we had to wait patiently while twenty recalcitrant pachyderms milled about in the road for no discernible reason. In fact, the elephants had a lot more luck moving us. At one point, a young bull trumpeted a warning, flared his impressive ears, and charged our vehicle. That got everyone's attention -- especially Steve's. He blasted down the road in reverse.
"He wasn't serious, was he?" I asked Steve.
"Probably not," Steve replied. "He was probably just showing off for the other ellies. But it is best not to take chances." Ever yone agreed that was good policy.
Elephants weren't the only game in abundance. Within a three-hour period we saw herds of kudu and sable grazing by the riverbank, timid impala darting through the bush, and a colony of several hundred four-foot-high meerkats migrating en masse across the plain. The kids also witnessed a lurid tableau when we stumbled across an eviscerated elephant carcass being picked apart by more than a dozen ugly vultures. And they learned how perilous the bush can be when we drove around a bend and found ourselves smack in the middle of a herd of Cape buffalo, considered one of the most dangerously aggressive species in Africa.
As we carefully picked our way through the Cape buffalo, Steve's radio crackled to life and another ranger alerted him that there was a pride of lions in the area. Steve advised us to hold on tight, and we bumped and jolted several miles down a rutted track until we spotted five lions sauntering away from a gnawed giraffe carcass. The lions settled beneath a tree by the side of the track. Then they yawned and stretched gracefully. We pulled within ten yards, and Kara and Willie breathlessly snapped a dozen photos each. Devi kept a taut grip on Lucas -- just to make sure he didn't become dessert.
By the time we returned to the lodge, Kara was, without doubt, the happiest child on earth. As far as she was concerned, you could keep every cathedral, museum, and ruin in Europe. For that matter, you could keep all the amusement parks, video arcades, and television sets in the world. Just give her the plains of Africa with its elephant herds and lion prides, because that's where her happiness lay.
The next morning, we took a small motor launch out on the Chobe River to get a close-up view of the crocs, hippos, and other riverine animals that dwelled along its muddy shores. Our guide was another young Motswana ranger named Thomas. Thomas surprised us when he said hippos were the most dangerous creature in Africa.
"More dangerous than lions or crocodiles?" asked Kara.
"Certainly," replied Thomas. "More people are killed by hippos each year than any other animal."
"I thought they were vegetarians," Kara replied.
"They are, but the males are very protective. They circle around the females underwater, and try to capsize any boat that comes too close to the pod. Sometimes they capsize boats for no apparent reason. Then they pick up the swimmers in their powerful jaws and crush them or they hold them underwater until they drown.
"The most important thing," continued Thomas, "is never to get between a bull hippo and his females. That's when he feels threatened. Also remember that a hippo is most dangerous when he dives. If he dives, it means he's trying to come up under the boat and roll it."
This ad hoc seminar gave me a whole new respect for the ungainly hippopotamus. Even though they look clumsy and harmless on land, they're apparently very aggressive and lightning-quick in the water. Five minutes later, we found ourselves circling a pod of females. After shooting some videos of the ladies, I looked around through my viewfinder to see where the male was. About fifty yards off I noticed a small gray object in the water. I zoomed in. It was him, and only his eyes and ears were above the water line.
"Hey Thomas," I said. "I thought we weren't supposed to get between the male and his pod."
At that moment, Thomas also spotted the male, an d he suddenly gunned the engine. Through my lens, I saw the beast drop beneath the water. At that moment, I knew this four-ton behemoth was headed for our little twelve-foot motorboat.
"He's diving!" I yelled at Thomas. "He's diving! We better get out of here!"
But Thomas already had the engine going full bore. "Hang on," he yelled. The kids all grabbed the nearest adult as the boat thrust forward, and after that, it was only a question of relative speed.
More in the next installment,
Copyright © 1999 by David Cohen