The one, the only Africa

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If you have been to Africa, you know what I am talking about -- there is nothing like it.

After having lived there for more than 20 years I returned in June to southern Africa, after an absence from the continent of 13 years. The object was to take two of my grandsons, Connor, 16, and Miles, 13, to see the animals -- and Africa. We went to Botswana, including to the delta of the Okavango River in the northwest of the country, passing through South Africa on the way.

The Okavango River flows from the mountains of Angola, across a part of Namibia called the Caprivi Strip, an anomaly of European colonialism in Africa, into Botswana, where it forms a delta of lakes, tributaries and islands. It is rich in wildlife and plants.

The whole experience was magnificent. Lions, leopards, herds of elephants, hippos, crocodiles, everything one can think of except rhinoceros, which aren't found in that part of Botswana. The trip was organized -- skillfully, in tiers -- by Anne-Marie Mulder of Sun Safaris.

It started with the roughest part, the Oddballs Camp in the delta. This involved sleeping in a small tent elevated on a platform. The platform was just as well because we were awakened in the night by an elephant tearing down a tree to eat just outside the tent. The next night another elephant came into the camp and hovered around the kitchen, to the concern but not distress of the Batswana who staffed it.

Game-watching at Oddballs was in dug-out canoes -- called mokoros -- and on foot. Our guide poled out the canoe along channels cut by the hippos through the reeds to nearby islands, where we game-watched tramping on foot across the savannah. In the reeds we would sometimes encounter a snorting hippo. They are herbivore for the most part. Our guide's name was Poison, which he had picked up playing soccer. He was very knowledgeable about the animals, birds and trees.

The second stop, to which we were transferred by light, single-engine plane, was also in the delta. It was called Sango Safari Camp, and was more commodious than Oddballs. There was electricity part of the time and indoor plumbing. There were mosquito nets. Our guide here was named Byst, pronounced "Beast." He said he had been tagged with that name, which he hated, by schoolmates. He was, again, very knowledgable. His family lived in a nearby village although his children had to go to school in the largest town in the delta, Maun.

Here, we usually traveled in open vehicles. The normal drill was, rise at 5 a.m., drink a tea and eat a biscuit, then go out to see the animals in the early morning. That's one of the times when they are awake and on the move. The predators -- lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals -- are hunting or returning from hunting. The others, predominantly impala antelopes -- the quarter-pounder-with-cheese of the veldt -- are alert, trying to evade the hungry predators. All of them are going for a morning drink of water. We saw one leopard sitting on top of an anthill, just looking around. No man or beast with any sense goes out in the midday sun so the next game-viewing was in late afternoon.

After another small-plane transfer, our final stop was at Chobe Game Lodge in the northeast corner of Botswana, different terrain, near a river, where herds of elephants, buffalo and the ubiquitous impala as well as many varieties of birds could be seen watering. Our guide here was Bee, a Motswana woman who knew a lot. It was here that we saw lions, four of them. Two, out for a morning walk, were as close to our vehicle as the end of my desk. There is nothing quite like the stare of a lion. It invites anthropomorphic projection. "I wonder what that thing would taste like if I could get at it?" "Go back and eat your breakfast so I can catch mine."

Seeing the lions close-up was one of the big thrills of the trip. The other was a celebration in the African night in honor of my grandson Miles' birthday and mine, which are on the same day. The African staff of Chobe came out with a cake, sang traditional birthday songs in Setswana, the national language, including ululation and the deep bass of Southern African vocal music, and then had us join them in a dance around the table. Be sure to listen carefully to the music that will accompany the eventual funeral ceremonies of dying South African leader Nelson Mandela, in particular, "Nkosi Sikhelele Afrika," God Bless Africa. It made me cry the first time I heard Africans sing it in the Transkei, in 1972, and it will undoubtedly make me cry when I hear it again at Mandela's funeral.

By the way, Botswana is an extremely well-run country. It sells diamonds for cash, and uses the revenue for schools, health care, infrastructure and economic diversification. Since independence in 1966, it has had free, democratic, multiparty elections and is now on its fourth orderly presidency.

The leaders of Botswana also firmly understand their responsibility to preserve the country's wildlife, while seeking to exploit its touristic potential -- lots of animals, well-trained guides and not too many tourists. Its armed forces hunt down and sometimes kill poachers. Its president, Ian Khama, is reportedly planning to ban all hunting starting at the end of 2013. South African companies are reportedly fighting the legislation.

The Batswana, in general, do not like South Africans, a heritage of the colonial era in Botswana and the apartheid period in South Africa. White South Africa always sought to incorporate the then-Bechuanaland Protectorate into South Africa; the British helped the Batswana fight them off. Ian Khama's father married a white British woman, which really annoyed the white South Africans.

South Africa is in the throes of watching Nelson Mandela die, wondering whether its current leader, President Jacob Zuma, a corrupt, incompetent joke, will be up to managing the transition. Mr. Zuma is not helped by the Mandela family, who are fighting among themselves, nor by the magnitude of a decision to pull the plug on Mr. Mandela, one of the great leaders of our time, even though it is clearly time for him to go.

dansimpson

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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