I stretched my feet out, lying on my side with book in hand. So beautiful, so relaxing, and just what I needed after three months leading a group of students working in Botswana in the Kalahari desert. We were with Operation Crossroads Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps, designed to give students the opportunity to visit African countries while working on development projects. We made bricks to build a new school, helped build latrines and, in turn, caught a glimpse at a life very different from our own. Now I wonder what ever happened to those students in my group?
But at that moment, all I knew was that I had a corner of peace and quiet. Everyone was “off doing their own thing” and I was finally alone. “This is so beautiful,” I thought looking out over the Chobe River, a nature preserve in Botswana. I tried to read my book, but my mind was elsewhere, dizzy with the memories of the few days we had been staying in a camp on the banks of the Chobe. I tried to return to the words on the pages of my book. Success, two more paragraphs read. Then suddenly I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding as the memories of my journey while still in Chobe came rushing back.
|Gnus and zebras at Chobe National Park in Botswana|
My group and I arrived in the village of Kasane by bus. We had no hotel reservations, no idea what we were going to do or where we were gong to stay. Somehow it worked out beautifully. We found a camp that we could afford—a grouping of traditional-style houses, with several latrines and an outside shower. We were as happy as could be. (After all, we had spent the last three months in a makeshift concrete building in the middle of the Kalahari desert where the temperature dropped to freezing at night, scorpions didn’t hesitate to join our campfires, and shooting stars simultaneously thrilled us and scared us to death.)
Upon arrival at our campsite, we met a group of white South African hunters. Their race was very significant because apartheid had not yet ended in South Africa and, since we were a multiracial group, we were not quite comfortable with their friendly overtures. They, on the other hand, seemed thrilled to meet a group from the United States and offered to take us on a non-hunting safari. So many mixed feelings invaded our group, and we went off to have a major discussion about their offer. We had little travel money and going on safari was not on our list of possibilities. Some did not hesitate to admit that they wanted to go, others wanted to protest apartheid by saying “no,” and others could not decide what to do. After a long discussion and a vote, most decided to go.
|Tourists arriving at Chobe River|
I will never forget that safari. Since then, I’ve been on many safaris, but my first cannot be surpassed. We went out early the next morning; the sun had barely risen in the sky. The smells reminded us of the diversity of life all around. We went on safari in jeeps, with the hunters carrying guns, to be used for protection if needed. They treated us to a day of adventure and beauty that surpassed my wildest expectations. For hours and hours, we drove, quiet, waiting for animals as we marveled at the beauty of the land, the peace of being in the middle of the bush, and the anticipation of what we would see. And see we did! Out guides expertly followed tracks, sounds, and movements, revealing to us the elephants, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, Cape Buffalo, snakes and more, in all of their splendor. It was extraordinary. I quickly learned that people go on safari because there is no feeling like it. Communing with nature feeds one’s soul in ways I do not have words to describe.
After the heat, the dust and the beauty, we went to the Chobe Game Lodge, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had once honeymooned. We sat on the veranda and had cool drinks, recent memories crowding our brains. We marveled at our day, the experience of joining such stately and wonderful birds and animals in their own habitats. We were happy that our hosts had never needed to use their guns, and that they had so skillfully guided us into a beautiful world none of us had experienced before.
That night, I slept, exhausted but happy, only to be awoken by elephants rambling through our camp! The next day, just when I didn’t think life could get any better, our group went on a cruise down the Chobe River at dusk and watched the animals partaking of their evening drinks of water. So different from the day before, when our guides had to work so hard to provide us with a view of animals, this day we saw so many elephants (my favorite), zebra, hippos, crocs and birds, that it was nearly unbelievable. The entire journey will stay indelibly on my brain and in my heart. I had the opportunity to experience Chobe’s majesty, hidden and out in the open. Because of that, I have tried harder to be a better being on this earth that we all share.